DavidBailey [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

May 16, 2019; Rolling Stone and NPR, “Politics”

The internal troubles of the National Rifle Association (NRA) did not end when its conflict-ridden national convention adjourned last month. Despite allegations of mismanagement, its longtime president Wayne Lapierre retained control, vowing to continue the organization’s fight against calls for more responsible gun laws. The interim weeks have seen new stories of his mismanagement and misuse of funds, opening new areas for concern about the competence and honesty of the organization.

Allen West, a board member and former Republican member of the House, has spoken out in a blog post. He seeks not only Wayne LaPierre’s resignation so that the organization can move on, but an end to what he calls out as lying about when and what the board knew about LaPierre’s spending. Meanwhile, the 76-member board has been quiet on these issues—at least publicly.

Despite its advocacy success, the NRA is facing significant financial difficulty. Even putting questions of appropriateness of the spending aside, the level of spending detailed in leaked memos comes at a time that revenue from membership dues has fallen and the organization has been forced to draw down most of a $25 million line of credit and rely on reserves to meet ongoing operational expenses. According to the New York Times, a review of tax records shows that “to steady its finances, the powerful lobbying group has increasingly relied on cash infusions and other transactions involving its affiliated foundation—at least $206 million worth since 2010.”

And yet its president is one of the highest paid nonprofit executives in the nation. National Public Radio (NPR), noting that LaPierre earned $1.4 million in 2017, asked Daniel Borochoff, president of Charity Watch, for his perspective. “In relation to other nonprofit organizations, he is paid more than just about anybody else in the field,” Borochoff said. “Do they need to pay him this in order to operate well? Or are there other executives that they would be able to hire that would be able to do the job as well at a lower cost? That’s what nonprofits need to defend.”

Overpaying its chief executive may only be the tip of the iceberg. Emerging from an ongoing dispute between the organization, its public relations firm Ackerman McQueen, and its attorneys at Brewer, Attorneys & Counselors, is a picture of an organization with little control over how its leader spent its funds. Leaked documents, as reported by Rolling Stone, “appear to detail more than half a million dollars in spending beneficial to LaPierre, including nearly $275,000 in ‘wardrobe’ purchases at a Beverly Hills boutique, and more than $250,000 in luxury travel.”

The letters, bearing the name and apparent signature of Ackerman McQueen CFO William Winkler, respond to NRA audits and litigation demanding transparency from the PR firm about its spending. “During the recent audit sequence,” one letter addressed to LaPierre reads, “we realized…that we need to address your wardrobe you required us to provide, specifically, purchases at the Zegna store in Beverly Hills, CA. Due to the substantial nature of the total ($274,695.03) we should address these items immediately.” An attachment to the letter appears to document purchases as far back as 2004, most recently a $21,0800 expenditure two days before Valentine’s Day in 2017.

The documents also raise questions about the large amount being billed by Brewster as it represents the organization in an ongoing dispute with Ackerman over that firm’s charges to the NRA. A letter signed by now-former NRA president Oliver North “outlines what North describes as ‘excessive’ billing by the Brewster law firm.”

“The Brewer invoices are draining NRA cash at a mindboggling speed,” North writes, adding that the payments to Brewer “pose an existential threat to the financial stability of the NRA.” The letter alleges that, over the previous 13 months, Brewer billed the NRA “more than $18.5 million net after reimbursements.” Payments in the first quarter of 2019 alone allegedly approached $9 million, or “$97,787 per day, seven days a week, every day of every month.” The letter adds: “$97,000 + a day is a stunning amount of money for any organization to pay.”

According to NPR, the NRA has found one way to balance the fiscal scales—reducing what it spends on the rest of its employees. The organization “has underfunded pensions affecting hundreds of former and current employees.” According to the group’s most recent financial disclosures, “the NRA’s pension obligations were approximately $134 million at the beginning of this year, but they had only set aside $93 million to meet those obligations.” What’s more, the NRA “implemented a freeze to their pension plan in 2018. This means that even current employees who are in the plan can no longer accrue new benefits despite continuing to work for the organization.”

Reports of fiscal excess in the executive suite have been matched with growing discontent in the organization’s rank and file. Staff are disgruntled by low pay and abusive working conditions. “There was a culture of fear,” said Vanessa Ross, who worked there from 2008 to 2011, managing the group’s disabled shooting services. “The moment you poked your head up and started asking questions, that’s when I felt everything turn—then it was like I was the pariah. I was treated as if I was this horrible person, that I wasn’t doing my job properly.”

In the NRA’s story, we can see reflections of some of the patterns exhibited at the Wounded Warrior Project. Success, public support, and leadership excesses offended donors and created a backlash that eventually ended in a nearly clean sweep of leadership, but not before it suffered deep and long-lasting damage to its donor base. Like Wounded Warrior, the NRA is conducting an internal investigation and trying to offload responsibility for the scandal onto what it characterizes as organizational “haters.”

When defenders of the NRA status quo frame the issue as another way their political opponents seek to weaken them, they are putting their heads in the sand. If the NRA board does not confront its role in allowing these abuses to take place, there’s little chance for an effective turnaround anytime soon. Ironically, for gun control advocates, this may be good news.—Martin Levine