“Mismanagement, cronyism and self-dealing”: Following the shuttering of NRATV, turmoil continues at the NRA

Since its online media outlet was shut down, the scandal-ridden National Rifle Association has taken blow after blow, from its chief lobbyist resigning to million-dollar donors withholding gifts until Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre steps down to outlets reporting that LaPierre had billed the NRA for his own extravagant travel expenses. With calls for ordinary members to reduce donations and campaigns launched to reform the organization, Republican politicians are worried the NRA’s turmoil will make it a nonfactor in the 2020 elections.  

National Rifle Association

The NRA pulls the plug on NRATV 

June 25: The NRA shuts down its broadcast platform. LaPierre wrote to NRA members, “After careful consideration, I am announcing that starting today, we are undergoing a significant change in our communications strategy. We are no longer airing ‘live TV’ programming.” The NRA executive vice president said the move came after several board members expressed concern the organization was moving away from gun rights advocacy. The NRA’s embattled longtime advertising agency, Ackerman McQueen, which ran NRATV, put out its own statement pledging to continue fighting “against the N.R.A.’s repeated violations of its agreement with our company with every legal remedy available to us.” [The New York Times, 6/25/19]

Fallout and reports of corruption following the shuttering of NRATV

June 25: Ad agencies reject the NRA’s pitch. The advertising company Publicis Groupe confirmed that it will not participate in the NRA’s pitch for business after the gun rights group bitterly parted ways with its advertising agency of four decades, Ackerman McQueen. Publicis Groupe’s position echoes that of another ad agency, IPG, which also refused the gun group’s pitch. IPG’s CEO was quoted as saying the company’s departments “just don’t want to work on an engagement like that.” [MediaPost.com, 6/25/19]

June 26: The NRA’s chief lobbyist and second-in-command resigns amid allegations of a failed attempt to oust LaPierre. Chris Cox, the executive director of the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action, resigned after being accused of plotting an alleged coup attempt against LaPierre. [Bloomberg, 6/26/19

July 1: NRA members launch a campaign to reform the pro-gun organization. After reports of cronyism and infighting, a group of NRA members created a “Save the Second” campaign to reform the NRA. Among other things, the group wants to shrink the NRA’s board of directors by more than half, create “attendance requirements for meetings,” encourage more members to vote in board elections, and refocus the organization “away from its current broad reactionary politics to a stricter focus on Second Amendment advocacy.” [The Trace, 7/1/19]

July 2: Ackerman McQueen is reportedly withholding health care benefits from employees until they sign a nondisclosure agreement. Ackerman McQueen reportedly placed its employees on unpaid leave and ended their health care benefits. The agency offered to “reactivate their insurance” provided they sign nondisclosure agreements. According to one NRATV employee, lawyers are likely to review Ackerman McQueen’s offer to evaluate whether the company can legally avoid paying its NRATV employees while extending health care benefits only to those who sign the NDA. [Media Matters, 7/2/19]

July 2: Big-ticket NRA donors pledge to withhold money until LaPierre resigns. The New York Times reported on “a network of wealthy N.R.A. donors who would cumulatively withhold more than $134 million in pledges” until the “radioactive” LaPierre steps down. The leader of the reported network of donors is also asking the organization to shrink its board of directors, remove its accounting firm, and prevent past presidents from serving on the board. [The New York Times, 7/2/19

July 3: Ackerman McQueen accuses the NRA of withholding severance from employees. In a statement, the ad agency claimed the NRA “is contractually obligated to cover severance” for NRATV employees but is refusing to “honor their agreement.” The statement also accused the NRA of threatening employees with the loss of their benefits and said the pro-gun organization has been unwilling to negotiate. [Twitter, 7/3/19

July 3: The Republican Party is reportedly nervous that the scandal-plagued NRA won’t be a force in upcoming elections. Turmoil within the NRA during an election cycle reportedly worried GOP senators enough that some “privately expressed concerns about the group to National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Todd Young.” The pro-gun group launched a huge campaign to help President Donald Trump win in 2020, but some NRA employees aren’t sure a 2020 strategy will emerge amid the group’s current scandals. Republican Party officials reportedly said the NRA’s reach in battleground states is what makes it “such a potent force.” [Politico, 7/3/19]    

July 4: LaPierre’s lavish travel expenses reportedly cost the NRA tens of thousands of dollars. The Washington Post reported July 4 on extravagant spending by LaPierre in the days following the December 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. After giving “fiery public appearances” defending the NRA, LaPierre and his wife took a trip to the Bahamas which was billed back to the NRA at a cost of nearly $70,000. An NRA spokesperson insisted the trip to the Bahamas was for fundraising and outreach but claimed that LaPierre must fly “by private plane for security reasons”:    

Twenty young children had just been gunned down by a semiautomatic rifle in their classrooms in Newtown, Conn., in December 2012, and inside the hardened bunker of the National Rifle Association, rattled officials were wrestling with rare feelings of self-doubt.

In the past, the gun rights organization had responded to mass shootings with unapologetic, high-profile attacks on any attempt to restrict firearms. But several senior NRA officials — laid low by images of sobbing parents planning their children’s funerals rather than tucking presents under Christmas trees — thought the organization should take a less confrontational approach this time, according to multiple people familiar with the internal debate.

Over the objections of some top officials, however, NRA chief executive Wayne LaPierre struck a defiant posture. In fiery public appearances crafted by Ackerman McQueen, the organization’s longtime advertising firm, LaPierre announced that the group would create a model program to train armed security guards who could protect schools from shooters, saying that was the only measure that would keep children safe.

Then LaPierre and his wife left for the Bahamas, a trip they billed through Ackerman McQueen — and was ultimately paid for by the nonprofit organization. Their post-Christmas flights to and from Eleuthera, known for its pink beaches, cost the NRA nearly $70,000, according to internal documents and people familiar with the trip. [The Washington Post, 7/4/19]

July 6: NRA member says three board members have been removed from committees following criticism of LaPierre. In a July 6 Instagram post, NRA member Rob Pincus said board members Timothy Knight, Esther Schneider, and Allen West had lost committee positions after they spoke “out about problems and the need for reform.” In a letter Pincus shared, Schneider noted that she had expressed “dire points of concern” and twice requested that LaPierre resign, and she said the removal ” sends a clear message of retaliation." [Instagram, 7/6/19]

July 8: Popular gun blog calls on LaPierre to step down. The popular firearms blog The Truth About Guns published an editorial by Managing Editor Dan Zimmerman slamming the NRA’s “mismanagement, cronyism, and self-dealing,” as led by LaPierre. The editorial said LaPierre and “every member of the organization’s audit, finance and executive committees should resign immediately,” and it called on NRA members to starve the organization of cash. Zimmerman instructed average NRA members to maintain their membership enough for voting rights, but “beyond that, cut off all funds bound for Fairfax,” home of the NRA’s Virginia headquarters, until LaPierre resigns. [The Truth About Guns, 7/8/19]

July 10: Documents show that an increase in revenue from NRA membership dues doesn’t mean an increase in members. Bloomberg News reported that the NRA disclosed an increase in revenues from 2018 membership dues by up to 33%. The seemingly good news for the NRA is reportedly a result of the group increasing its “annual dues twice in two years” and offering “multiyear memberships in the first year,” not because of a substantial increase in the number of members. [Bloomberg, 7/10/19]

July 11: In a new countersuit, former NRA President Oliver North claims LaPierre blocked any internal investigations. In a new countersuit filed by former NRA President Oliver North, who was forced out after an alleged coup attempt against LaPierre, North denied trying to oust the embattled executive vice president. Instead, the suit claims that “North had a fiduciary duty as President of the NRA and a member of the Board of Directors to responsibly address allegations of financial misconduct,” which included creating a “crisis management committee to address the reports.” North’s countersuit alleges that LaPierre shut down all attempts to investigate potential financial improprieties and retaliated by removing him as president. [The Trace, 7/11/19]

July 12: D.C. attorney general subpoenas the NRA’s financial documents. Washington, D.C., Attorney General Karl Racine is requesting documents from both the NRA and its charitable foundation “as part of an investigation into whether these entities violated the District’s Nonprofit Act.” The D.C. attorney general is looking specifically at documents detailing “financial records, payments to vendors, and payments to officers and directors.” Racine is the second attorney general to issue subpoenas for financial records to the NRA this year -- New York Attorney General Letitia James opened an investigation into the NRA’s tax exempt status in April. [The Washington Post, 7/12/19]

July 15: The NRA faces growing financial uncertainty as two more donors withhold contributions. On July 15, The Trace reported that two additional NRA donors -- including a former NRA board member who asked not to be named -- are attempting “to force reform at the scandal-rocked organization by starving it of funding.” The two donors are halting plans to leave the NRA large sums in their respective wills until the board of directors is restructured and LaPierre steps down. One of the donors referred to the board as “the disease” while the scandal-ridden leader of the organization is “the symptom.” [The Trace, 7/15/19]

July 18: NRA board member and former President Marion Hammer demands other falls in line behind LaPierre. The group “Save the Second” posted to its Facebook page a leaked email from former NRA President Marion Hammer regarding board members who lost committee assignments, which some alleged was retribution for criticizing LaPierre. In her email, Hammer said board members “have a fiduciary responsibility to act in the best interests of” the NRA, but “some have chosen not to do so.” Hammer went on to say those board members who did not get a committee assignment should “consider whether or not they want to help us save the Second Amendment or continue on a course detrimental to NRA and our mission.” [Slate, 7/18/19]

July 30: Former NRA employee alleges organization’s outside law firm bullied those who sounded the alarm about “problematic payments.” ProPublica, in partnership with The Trace and The New Yorker, reported that a former senior employee in the NRA’s treasurer’s office, Emily Cummins, produced a written statement saying that outside counsel William A. Brewer III “tried to thwart” NRA accountants’ efforts to “draw attention to to the problematic payments” made by the gun group's leadership. Brewer's firm billed the NRA $24 million over 13 months, including charges for more than $97,000 per day in the first quarter of 2019. According to ProPublica, Cummins accused Brewer of “trying to intimidate, deceive and silence NRA staff” and some accountants were “growing increasingly troubled by the organization’s mismanagement” and spending. Cummins wrote that the NRA’s outside counsel “threatened our professional livelihoods” and kept “‘burn books’ filled with personal information that he could use against individuals.” Both Brewer’s firm and the NRA denied Cummins’ allegations. [ProPublica, 7/30/19]

August 1: Three NRA board members resign after their confidence in the organization’s management was “shattered.” Three NRA board members -- Esther Schneider, Sean Maloney, and Timothy Knight -- resigned on August 1 after raising concerns about the NRA’s exorbitant spending and mismanagement. In their resignation letter, the former board members said they hoped NRA leadership would “recognize the seriousness of these allegations and work with us,” but they were instead “stonewalled, accused of disloyalty, stripped of committee assignments and denied effective counsel” to properly resign from the board. Board member, lobbyist, and former NRA President Marion Hammer said the departing group “made a treacherous attempt to overthrow leadership” and told them, “Don’t let the door hit you in the back on the way out.” [The Washington Post, 8/1/19]

August 6: The NRA reportedly discussed purchasing a multimillion-dollar Texas mansion for LaPierre. The Washington Post reported that according to documents and people familiar with the records, the NRA planned to buy a roughly $6 million mansion near Dallas for LaPierre, which the New York attorney general’s office is now investigating as part of an ongoing inquiry into the organization’s tax-exempt status. The purchase was apparently planned to “be made through a corporate entity that received a wire of tens of thousands of dollars from the NRA” last year, according to the Post. The paper reported that one property that was under consideration was a “10,000-square-foot French country estate with lakefront and golf course views.” While the transaction never went through, Ackerman McQueen accused LaPierre of seeking out its assistance with the purchase, while NRA officials accused Ackerman McQueen of suggesting it “as an investment that would be managed by the ad firm’s top executives.” [The Washington Post, 8/6/19]

August 6: Major NRA donor files class action fraud lawsuit against the organization, LaPierre and the NRA Foundation. Longtime donor David Dell’Aquila filed a lawsuit against the NRA and LaPierre for “fraud in the solicitation of donations.” According to his legal complaint, Dell’Aquila donated $100,000 to the NRA in cash donations and “gifts in kind” over the last four years and planned to leave the organization 75% of his estate. He is now asserting that the NRA “alleged that the donations would be used for gun safety education; to promote shooting sports and hunter safety, to foster wildlife conservation; and to protect gun ownership rights in the United States” but that his donations were instead spent on “purposes unrelated to the NRA’s core mission,” including paying its outside legal counsel, as well as paying for clothing, private jet travel and “other personal benefits” for LaPierre. [United States District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee, 8/6/19]

August 16: NRA spent tens of thousands of dollars flying makeup artists around for LaPierre’s wife. The Daily Beast reported that the NRA spent tens of thousands of dollars flying Nashville-based makeup artists and hairstylists around for LaPierre’s wife, who serves as one of the co-chairs for the organization’s Women’s Leadership Forum. The expenses allegedly included plane flights and luxury hotel stays for stylists “plugged in to the country music scene.” The NRA dismissed the report, which a spokesperson claimed was orchestrated by former ad firm Ackerman McQueen, stating that the NRA coordinated hair and makeup for all its high-profile figures. Ackerman McQueen reiterated that all of its payments were made at the NRA’s direction. [The Daily Beast, 8/16/19]

August 20: Three more NRA leaders resign. CNN reported on August 20 that NRA board members Craig Morgan and Richard Childress have stepped down. David Lehman, deputy executive director and general counsel to the organization’s lobbying arm, also resigned. Childress and former President Oliver North had both previously raised concerns about how much money the organization was spending on an outside lawyer before North was ousted. Morgan frequently appeared on the now-defunct NRATV, and Lehman worked under Chris Cox, the NRA Institute for Legislative Action’s former executive director who resigned in June after a failed attempt to remove LaPierre. [CNN.com, 8/20/19]

August 26: NRA reportedly paid for private jet travel for LaPierre’s relatives. According to records obtained by The Wall Street Journal, “the National Rifle Association paid for private jets to fly to and from central Nebraska to ferry relatives” of LaPierre and his wife Susan. Susan LaPierre’s niece Colleen Sterner, a low-level NRA employee, lives in Nebraska with her daughter. An NRA spokesperson said Sterner typically flies commercial for her job but “has occasionally traveled via private aircraft with NRA officials and vendors in connection with her professional responsibilities.” The Wall Street Journal identified seven times a private jet paid for by the NRA stopped in Nebraska, and the report claimed that “such a detour on that type of jet typically would cost about $5,000, according to two charter-jet operators.” [The Wall Street Journal, 8/26/19]

August 30: The NRA calls NRATV a “failed endeavor” in newest ad agency lawsuit. The NRA sued Ackerman McQueen again, according to The Daily Beast, this time demanding the advertising agency remove “any reference to the NRA from its website.” According to court documents, the NRA called now-defunct NRATV “a failed endeavor under any appropriate performance metric.” The lawsuit also included a letter from an NRA spokesperson describing NRATV as “an abject failure.” [The Daily Beast, 8/30/19]

September 11: NRA “vendor” Under Wild Skies files multi-million dollar lawsuit against the gun organization. Under Wild Skies Inc. produces a TV program about hunting that was previously sponsored by the NRA and was available for streaming at NRATV prior to its shuttering by the NRA. The show has featured prominent NRA figures including LaPierre and his wife Susan. The program is hosted by Tony Makris, who is the president of Under Wild Skies Inc. and also happens to be a “top executive at the NRA’s former advertising firm, Ackerman McQueen,” which produced NRATV. The lawsuit alleges the NRA owes the entity “$17.1 million for breach of contract after the gun-rights group stopped paying agreed upon-fees to sponsor the program and advertise on it.” Under Wild Skies believes they are “being unfairly punished” because of the NRA’s dispute with Ackerman McQueen, despite not being under the “control or direction” of the advertising agency. In addition to the breach of contract, Under Wild Skies is claiming LaPierre, his wife and other top NRA officials “were treated to free hunting safaris” in Botswana, Tanzania, Mozambique and Uruguay. The Under Wild Skies hunting program previously aired on NBC Sports Network until 2013 when Makris shot an elephant in the face during an episode and then during the subsequent controversy appeared on NRA News -- NRATV’s predecessor -- to compare his critics to Hitler. While networks documents describe the hunting program as “NRA Sports Under Wild Skies,” Makris claimed during an interview with Media Matters the NRA did not produced the program and instead was only a sponsor, contradicting NRA documents that took credit for the show as an NRA project. [Wall Street Journal, 9/11/19, The New Yorker, 4/17/19, Media Matters, 9/30/2013]

October 25: NRA calls NRATV’s messaging “distasteful and racist” in new filing. In a new filing for a lawsuit that was officially filed at the end of August, the NRA called NRATV’s messaging “distasteful and racist,” specifically highlighting Loesch’s Thomas the Tank Engine segment. The NRA claimed that efforts to “‘rein in’” Ackerman McQueen and NRATV following that segment “were met with responses from [Ackerman McQueen] that ranged from evasive to hostile.” The pro-gun organization said when it requested to see the number of “unique visitors” to NRATV, Ackerman McQueen produced numbers that were “intentionally (and wildly) misleading.” The filing also stated that when “NRATV finally shut down in June 2019, no one missed it” as “the site had limited visibility and was failing [to] accomplish any of its goals.” [Twitter, 10/26/19]

November 1: Eighth NRA board member resigns following newest filing in lawsuit. Former Rep. Dan Boren (D-OK) has forfeited his NRA membership and become the eighth board member to resign from the pro-gun organization since May. Boren has been mentioned in several lawsuits between the NRA and Ackerman McQueen; in a civil lawsuit filed against former NRA President Oliver North, the NRA “produced an email Boren sent … in which he said ‘I bet Ackerman is in trouble’ regarding allegations of improperly invoiced work.” The NRA also accused Boren of delivering a message from Ackerman McQueen to North just before the 2019 NRA Annual Meeting “in which, they allege, NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre was induced to step down from the organization, something that did not ultimately occur.” Documents produced in another lawsuit allege Boren was communicating with North and former NRA lobbyist Chris Cox, who resigned after being accused of attempting a coup against LaPierre. [Newsweek, 11/1/19]    

This piece was originally published July 11 and is being updated with additional information as the story develops.

Correction (7/12/19): This piece originally mischaracterized Rob Pincus as a member of the NRA's board and erroneously said he had been removed from committee assignments; he is a member of the organization but not the board. It also misattributed quotes to him that were from one of the board members who lost assignments.