- Mike Spiesstaff writer at The Trace and a contributor to The New Yorker.
Is the National Rifle Association imploding? As the nation grieves over another deadly school shooting, we turn to look at how internal turmoil inside the NRA threatens the future of the gun lobbying group. A major new report published by The Trace in partnership with The New Yorker finds that while the NRA has blamed its recent financial woes on left-wing attacks on the Second Amendment, the real damage to the organization comes from within. Chief among the NRA’s problems is its three-decade-old relationship with Oklahoma-based public relations firm Ackerman McQueen. The firm, which is behind the NRA’s imaging, messaging and most of its initiatives, was paid more than $40 million in 2017. We speak to Mike Spies, staff writer at The Trace.
AMY GOODMAN: Is the National Rifle Association imploding? As the nation grieves over another deadly mass school shooting, we turn to look at how internal turmoil inside the NRA threatens the future of the gun lobbying group. A major new report by The Trace in partnership with The New Yorker magazine finds that while the NRA has blamed its recent financial woes on left-wing attacks on the Second Amendment, the real damage to the organization comes from within. Reporter Michael Spies writes, quote, “A small group of NRA executives, contractors, and vendors has extracted hundreds of millions of dollars from the nonprofit’s budget, through gratuitous payments, sweetheart deals, and opaque financial arrangements.”
Chief among the NRA’s problems is its three-decade-old relationship with Oklahoma-based public relations firm Ackerman McQueen. The firm, which is behind the NRA’s imaging, messaging and most of its initiatives, was paid more than $40 million in 2017. The report comes as Iran-Contra figure Oliver North was recently ousted as NRA president, after he threatened to reveal evidence of corruption against longtime chief executive Wayne LaPierre. This all comes as New York’s Attorney General Letitia James has opened an investigation into the NRA’s tax-exempt status.
Well, for more, we’re joined by Mike Spies, staff writer for The Trace.
Welcome to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us. You’ve done incredible work. Explain what happened over these last few weeks. I mean, you have this mass shooting after mass shooting. From the University of North Carolina, you’ve got the San Diego synagogue shooting, and then you have, right near Columbine, another high school shooting—all of this happening as the NRA—well, what happened to Oliver North and this showdown with Wayne LaPierre?
MIKE SPIES: Well, interestingly, you mentioned the NRA’s longtime PR firm Ackerman McQueen as being the sort of largest or most significant illustration of a larger institutional problem. So, Oliver North came to be president of the NRA about a year ago. He also separately held a contract with Ackerman McQueen, the PR firm that you were just mentioning, for some million dollars a year, which posed some kind of conflict of interest.
Still, despite that, Oliver North tried to, I think, honestly, take the high road and was concerned about larger institutional issues at the organization that go beyond that firm. And he wanted Wayne LaPierre, who is, I think, very much part of that institutional problem, to address those issues and was pushing him to do so. The response was, of course, to file a lawsuit against Ackerman McQueen, the NRA’s longtime PR firm, that largely targeted Oliver North, putting him in sort of an impossible position and effectively forcing him to resign his post as president of the NRA.
It’s a sort of really shocking development. It’s hard to like overstate how crazy this is. That firm created the modern National Rifle Association as you know it. I mean, whatever the case may be, whatever issues have been going on with, you know, gratuitous payments, vague billings—again, issues that are not just specific to that firm, but a wide variety of contractors and people connected to senior management—that firm made Wayne LaPierre. And Wayne LaPierre is effectively saying right now, “The wool was being pulled over my eyes. I didn’t know. I didn’t know that this was happening. I didn’t know Oliver North was getting—had this contract. I didn’t understand the business arrangements that were playing out for the last few decades.” And that just defies credulity in every possible way.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, explain more what you’ve uncovered about the NRA’s financial dealings and corruption. So you’ve got Oliver North accusing Wayne LaPierre of gross corruption, and vice versa.
MIKE SPIES: Right. I mean, to be clear, nobody’s—I mean, for lack of a better phrase, no one’s hands are really clean right now. So, just we have this sort of—I’ve used this reference before, but you’ve got this Game of Thrones scenario where just everyone is trying to fight for their own survival and be the one who comes out victorious, sitting on the throne.
But what I found came from internal documents, a variety of different public filings, stuff that it’s really hard to find in state charity bureaus that involves like vendor contracts, that sort of thing. And what I found was there was an atmosphere that was pervaded by secrecy, greed, self-dealing. And you have a number of long-standing vendor arrangements where the NRA is paying lots of money—as you said, hundreds of millions of dollars—for contractors that have some kind of special connection to senior management in the organization. Often senior management is—not often; I mean, there are people in senior management who are getting paid multiple ways, not just through the NRA itself. They have their own conflicts of interest. They’re also handing out contracts, at times, to their dads or their ex-girlfriends, or they have some—or their firm hires their significant other. I mean, there’s a whole—
AMY GOODMAN: Why did the NRA spend so much money on the 2016 election?
MIKE SPIES: I mean, that question—there seems to not be a very satisfactory answer to that question, in part because they did not have—I mean, the money they spent, they did not have to spend. I mean, I can only speculate. And to be clear, that amount of money came to more than $50 million. And that’s coming from an organization that was already in financial trouble. And most of that went toward the election of Donald Trump.
I think it was a play. I think the thought was, “There’s no way Donald Trump is going to win. Every other outside conservative group has essentially said, ’We’re staying out of this race. We’re not going to back Donald Trump.’” Donald Trump was polling very well among the NRA’s core members. And I think the thought was, “He’s going to lose, and then we’ll be able to fundraise off of that.”
AMY GOODMAN: So, are we right now talking about, you know, the curtain being pulled back and seeing the wizard of Oz? You have one mass shooting after another. Politician after politician will say that they themselves and the others are being captured by the NRA and not taking it on. You do have the Democratic candidates running for the 2020 presidential race. One after another is saying, “We do have to take this power on.” But is there a power there?
MIKE SPIES: Yeah. This is the most important question that anyone can ask. And, yes, the curtain has been pulled back. I think for a very long time, perhaps because it’s been convenient for some lawmakers to toe this line in order to create a wedge issue, the organization’s power is largely mythological. And the myth has worked very well for them. It obviously has intimidated lawmakers, especially at the state level. It’s been a really useful tool.
But is it real? Or do they have any more power than anybody else? I think that the answer is actually no. It’s just the idea of whether or not you’re willing to challenge it. But Republicans then—you know, here’s a perfect example. Rick Scott, right now, somebody who, as governor of Florida, literally did everything the NRA wanted. I mean, there was never a time that he was not carrying the NRA’s—
AMY GOODMAN: We have 20 seconds.
MIKE SPIES: Yes. So, now, all of a sudden, he finally, at the end of his term, does not do what the NRA wants, and he still gets elected to the U.S. Senate anyway.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to continue this discussion. We’re going to post it as a post-show. Mike Spies, staff writer at The Trace, contributor to The New Yorker. His major exposé of the NRA’s finances is headlined “Secrecy, Self-Dealing, and Greed at the NRA.” We will link to it.