Newtown semis,” Newtown graffiti

June 21, 2019; Rolling Stone and Associated Press

If we’ve wondered how the leadership of the National Rifle Association (NRA) would respond to charges of fiscal mismanagement and stories of the organization’s financial distress beyond blaming the whole thing on external NRA haters, last week, the answer became clearer. The organization went to court trying to turn the tables on any of its own who have dared to question the integrity of the organization and its CEO, Wayne LaPierre.

In a suit filed on Wednesday, the NRA charged that the effort of its former volunteer president, Oliver North, to force LaPierre to step down was “conduct harmful to the NRA.” At the same time, the organization suspended Christopher Cox, who since 2002 had directed the NRA Institute for Legislative Action, the NRA’s political and lobbying arm, alleging he had conspired with North to hurt his employer.

NPQ has followed the NRA’s season of internal controversy closely as it has unfolded. Following a convention which began with North’s attempt to have LaPierre replaced, the organization has continued “to fight a heated and expensive legal battle with the PR firm that has guided its rise to prominence. Its longtime leader has been accused of using organizational funds for personal benefit. Its practice of contracting for the services of many of its board members has been challenged. Its nonprofit status is under investigation in by New York’s attorney general.” Last week, the organization still apparently rejected the need for self-reflection as it attacked its accusers.

The NRA suit describes North’s actions in challenging LaPierre as an “attempted coup.” It accused North of leading a “conspiracy to enable the NRA’s longtime advertising agency, Ackerman McQueen Inc., which employed North, to gain control of its largest client.” The suit goes on to charge that North acted in his own best interests “at the expense of the interests of the NRA, engaged in conduct harmful to the NRA, and persistently failed to provide to the NRA important details related to his lucrative contract with Ackerman.”

In naming Cox, whom the association had described as responsible for “some of its most significant political and legislative victories” and who had been thought to be LaPierre’s heir apparent, the NRA painted a picture of high-level internal dissension. According to Rolling Stone, the NRA cited a series of text messages between Cox and board member Dan Boren “as evidence Cox ‘participated’ in the ‘conspiracy’…the NRA blasts him as ‘an errant NRA fiduciary.’” Going further, the NRA also suspended Cox’s deputy chief of staff, Scott Christman.

The NRA’s posture is unusually aggressive for a nonprofit organization involved in an internal dispute and for a case that might involve a whistleblower. It asks the court to make North personally responsible for his legal fees for actions taken when he was acting as the organization’s president: “North engaged in extortion and other wrongful conduct…he acted in bad faith, adversely to the NRA, and in breach of his fiduciary duties to the NRA.…The NRA cannot, and will not, expend its donors’ funds to pay North’s legal fees after he chose to pursue his own financial interests at the direct expense of the NRA.”

What remains unaddressed are the specific issues raised by the NRA’s critics. Were the hundreds of thousands of dollars of LaPierre’s clothing and travel expenses that NRA covered appropriate and properly authorized? Was something systemically amiss in their years-long relationship with Ackerman McQueen? Was there inappropriate self-dealing in the organization’s contracting with its own board members, including Oliver North’s relationship with Ackerman? Does the board have proper oversight of its professional leadership?

These questions, even if they were raised in an inappropriate fashion by Oliver North, deserve careful review by the NRA board. Last week’s suits do not give us any reason to believe they’re doing their job—just circling the wagons while firing more warning shots, this time into the circle itself.—Martin Levine