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The Trace’s Mike Spies on “Secrecy, Self-Dealing, and Greed at the NRA

Web ExclusiveMay 10, 2019
Media Options

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. In this web-only special, we continue our conversation with journalist Mike Spies of The Trace.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. There has been a school shooting every 12 days in the year after the mass school shooting in Parkland, Florida. The latest took place Tuesday at the STEM School Highlands Ranch outside Denver, where one student was shot dead. Last year, NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre broke his silence after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas school shooting in Florida that left 17 people dead. That sparked a student-led movement for gun control that hasn’t stopped. Wayne LaPierre attacked gun control advocates as communists.

WAYNE LAPIERRE: The elites don’t care, not one whit, about America’s school system and schoolchildren. If they truly cared, what they would do is they would protect them. For them, it’s not a safety issue; it’s a political issue. They care more about control, and more of it. Their goal is to eliminate the Second Amendment and our firearms freedoms, so they can eradicate all individual freedoms. …

On college campuses, The Communist Manifesto is one of the most frequently assigned texts, Karl Marx is the most assigned economist, and there are now over 100 chapters of Young Democratic Socialists of America at many universities, and students are even earning academic credit for promoting socialist causes. In too many classrooms all over the United States—and I know you think about this when you decide where you’re going to send your kids to school, and your kids think about it, too—the United States Constitution is ignored, United States history is perverted, and the Second Amendment freedom in this country is despised.

AMY GOODMAN: That is Wayne LaPierre, the NRA CEO, breaking his silence after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas school shooting in Florida that left 17 people dead, talking about communists.

Michael Spies is a staff writer at The Trace and a contributor to The New Yorker. He has a major exposé out now on the NRA’s finances that’s headlined “Secrecy, Self-Dealing, and Greed at the NRA.” His follow-up piece, out this week, is headlined ”NRA Memo Reveals New Details About Leadership’s Conflicts and Unexplained Spending.”

Thank you for staying for Part 2 of this conversation, Mike. What does what Wayne LaPierre just said have to do with gun control? Tell us about the history of the NRA, how it gained its power, who is behind it. And is it imploding right now?

MIKE SPIES: To answer your first question, communism has nothing to do with gun control at all or any of the issues that he is talking about. Just a convenient messaging tool and dog whistle—it’s not even a dog whistle. I mean, he’s just saying it. It’s been something that he’s been using in his speeches for a very long time.

But before we go there, let’s back up to how the NRA got to where it is now. The NRA was created after the Civil War. It’s worth knowing that because the whole point was to seed a culture of marksmanship and gun training and safety in the North, because Northern troops were outshot by their Southern rivals, and that was of concern to officers. And for the next 100 years or so, the organization’s main function was gun safety, training, even hunting, sporting, all of that stuff. It wasn’t until the ’70s that it was so—

AMY GOODMAN: When you say marksmanship, do you mean killing freed slaves?

MIKE SPIES: Well, I mean—no, in this case, I mean like just learning how to properly handle a firearm and being able to shoot it accurately. Something—there was a change, though. In the late ’60s, the United States passed the first major federal gun control act, and within the next decade, the NRA developed its—or, established its lobbying wing and was ultimately overtaken by a group of activists that were on its board who wanted to reorient the organization toward what they became, what became gun rights advocacy, whatever that was to mean. I mean, the definition of that has been loose and has changed repeatedly over time. Now it just means total absolute rights for anyone who has a firearm; you should be able to do whatever you want with it.

As far as Wayne LaPierre goes, he came to the organization during that time period, in the '70s. He was formerly a Democratic aide. He was not someone who had a ton of skin in the game. He wasn't someone who was—you know, you wouldn’t have called him a gun guy. He wasn’t somebody who had much experience handling firearms or had—you know, he wasn’t somebody who you would—he wasn’t someone who grew up or actively engaged in gun culture. But he got the job nonetheless, and the job—you know, it’s ultimately made him. And by the early '90s, he ascended to the NRA's top post, became executive vice president.

And that’s when the modern NRA, the true modern NRA, really began. And a lot of the problems that are playing out now with respect to the organization imploding, the financial issues that stem from these gratuitous payments, the self-dealing, the sweetheart deals, this small group of people connected to senior management and also people within senior management who have gotten very wealthy off of the issue, that really—that stage was set with him.

AMY GOODMAN: You have done a lot of reporting on Marion Hammer. Explain who she is.

MIKE SPIES: Marion and Wayne are actually linked very closely to each other. They sort of came up around the same time. Marion is the organization’s—arguably, historically, has been the organization’s most successful lobbyist. She’s based in Florida. She did once serve as the NRA’s president, the first female president. She’s pushing 80 right now. But she has worked to enact some of the most impactful gun rights legislation that we know of, that includes “stand your ground” legislation, that allowed people for the first time, really, in a sort of major way to carry concealed firearms in public. Stuff that like truly affects all of our lives right now, that began in Florida, which she ultimately turned into a test kitchen for experimental gun legislation, which then gets transported around the country.

AMY GOODMAN: And explain how Ackerman McQueen—how it fits into this picture, this public relations firm based in Oklahoma.

MIKE SPIES: So, once Wayne came to power, worth noting that he, by—you know, according to everyone who knows him and who has spoken to me about him, he’s an introvert. He’s mild-mannered. He’s even been described as meek. He was essentially a blank page that needed coloring and needed to be turned into the figure that you know him now to be, which is sort of this hell-raising fighter for a cause that ultimately has resulted in a fair amount of death.

Instrumental in creating his public persona was Ackerman McQueen. For several decades, it’s been the organization’s top PR firm. When you’re most of the time encountering the organization’s messaging, you’re really—you have been encountering Ackerman McQueen’s messaging. That is NRATV, the most successful ad campaigns. The personalities that are associated with the organization at the moment, in particular, the faces that you see the most, are folks that were recruited by Ackerman McQueen and are paid by them.

That being said, you know, the NRA entered into that relationship willingly and has relied—specifically Wayne LaPierre has relied extensively on Ackerman McQueen’s work. And if you sort of remove ideology from the equation, that firm’s work has been extremely effective in advancing the cause. It has created a lot of problems for the organization internally and continues to, but it’s also not the only issue, as the NRA is essentially saying it is right now. Its relationship with Ackerman McQueen is an example of a number of relationships it has with a variety of vendors and contractors, that have done extremely well financially off of this issue.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, when you say “extremely well,” your pieces in The Trace and at The New Yorker have just been astounding in talking about the amount of money—


AMY GOODMAN: —that is being spent and given to—who? And where is it coming from? Who is funding the NRA?

MIKE SPIES: Yeah. So, we’re talking—as you say, we’re talking about hundreds of millions of dollars that has ultimately been extracted from the organization’s budget and has really plundered its coffers. It’s left them with—I mean, they’re in serious financial trouble. They’re overly leveraged. And while people seem to think often, “Of course, the NRA is bankrolled by this small cabal of very wealthy gun manufacturers, etc.,” that’s not actually reality. The NRA is terrible at cultivating high-dollar single fundraisers.

The vast majority of its revenue, which comes to between $300 [million] and $400 million dollars a year, is coming from its members, the little guys, the people who are just paying their dues, giving like the hundred dollars that they can afford to give. Those are the people that are largely funding the organization. And the money that they’re giving is not being used, in many cases, in the way that they think it is.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to talk about the latest controversy with the new president, the one that’s replaced the ousted, forced-out Oliver North, Carolyn Meadows—


AMY GOODMAN: —the new president of the NRA, who apologized after coming under intense fire for attacking fellow Georgian, the Democratic freshman Congresswoman Lucy McBath. Meadows claimed, in an interview with the Marietta Daily Journal, that McBath only won her seat because she’s a “minority female,” not because she was anti-gun. Congressmember McBath had a 17-year-old son. He was African-American. His name is Jordan Davis. He was shot dead in 2012 at a Florida gas station by a white man who opened fire on this car of teens who were sitting there on the day after Thanksgiving. He said their music was too loud, and he killed Jordan.

Lucy McBath campaigned on a gun control platform and said she was inspired to run for office after witnessing the student activism following the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. In a tweet responding to Meadows’ comments, McBath wrote, quote, “Hi NRA! It’s time we clear something up. I won this race because–after my son was senselessly murdered in 2012–I stood up to do something about it. I knew it was time to fight back.” Talk about the significance of this latest controversy.

MIKE SPIES: I mean, it’s not really surprising. The organization primarily consists of white people who live in an echo chamber and are largely insulated from what is the reality of everyday American life. And that’s a perfect example of that. The person who’s been now appointed president, Carolyn Meadows, isn’t someone who’s, I think, used to being out in the public eye. She was a replacement. She’s somebody who is a close Wayne LaPierre associate. She’s been a supporter of his for a long time. And she’s also somebody who, as an officer, previous officer of the board, was well aware of many of the problematic financial arrangements that are playing out now. And, of course, her first move, as now the organization’s president, was to essentially say something that was just very overtly racist.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s talk about who she replaced, Oliver North.


AMY GOODMAN: We talked some about this in Part 1, but this implosion that has taken place. You have Oliver North, who actually came to fame because of his connection to weapons, right?


AMY GOODMAN: He was involved in the 1980s in the Iran-Contra scandal, which was illegally selling weapons to Iran, taking the money and using them to illegally fund the Contras in Nicaragua, who were killing so many Sandinistas.

MIKE SPIES: Right, right.

AMY GOODMAN: Right? The Contra death squads.

MIKE SPIES: Right, right, right.

AMY GOODMAN: So he has a long history with guns, then ran in Virginia and lost. He becomes head of the NRA. So, you would think these guys are allies—Wayne LaPierre, Oliver North. But talk about what happened in these last months, why Oliver North threatened to uncover and expose the corruption of the NRA, particularly the money Wayne LaPierre was getting, yet his own background is so connected to all of this corruption.

MIKE SPIES: Yeah. I mean, and they were allies. And Oliver North, before he became president, served for a number of years on the NRA’s board. He has been an icon for that organization for many years, long featured on NRATV. In order to fully understand the current situation—

AMY GOODMAN: And wait. And I want to ask about NRATV—


AMY GOODMAN: —because that’s part of this whole scandal.

MIKE SPIES: Yes, right. So, you have to sort of back up to sort of: Where does this all begin? So, as far as NRATV goes, NRATV is the NRA’s digital media platform. It hosts a number of programs. It is something that is produced and was conceived of by the firm Ackerman McQueen. So, Oliver North, for a long time, has been an Ackerman contractor, just like Dana Loesch or Colion Noir or some of the other personalities that you see all the time. NRATV, though—I mean, to be clear, again, if you’re pulling back and you’re sort of removing yourself from ideology—is the way most people encounter the NRA now. Most people think of Dana Loesch as a lobbyist. Colion Noir, same thing.

So, what happened was, Oliver North became president a year ago and began to, I think, on his own, develop some concerns about the organization’s finances, despite the fact that he had his own conflict of interest. His own conflict of interest, again, is that he was getting paid by Ackerman McQueen some million dollars a year. But the big question, and what the NRA is alleging—but, again, it’s a big question and, from my perspective, defies credulity—is, the NRA is saying, “Well, we didn’t—we didn’t know this contract happened. We didn’t direct it. We had no idea that he was getting paid this much money. We never even got to see the final contract.” Doesn’t really make sense, right? I mean, Oliver North was a longtime Ackerman McQueen contractor and took that position after giving up, I think, other lucrative gigs, like speaking on Fox News regularly and that sort of thing.

So, Wayne LaPierre and the NRA’s outside counsel Bill Brewer—who, it’s worth noting right now, because this is a sort of Shakespearean family drama—Bill Brewer is the son-in-law of the CEO of Ackerman McQueen. So, he takes over the NRA’s legal side, comes on, at some point, 2017, but becomes very important in 2018 as the NRA starts to litigate against the state of New York, and is now ultimately leading the litigation against Ackerman McQueen.

The question is: Why did they decide to put this lawsuit forward, and what was actually going on behind the scenes? My understanding is that Oliver North had some concerns about how much the lawsuit against the state of New York was costing the NRA. The firm, as I reported in the story, is, according to sources, getting paid some $1.5 million a month. I mean, it’s a—just to be clear, that’s a law firm. The NRA is already in deep financial trouble. And then, on top of it being in deep financial trouble, it’s paying a law firm $1.5 million a month. And I think that was the start of the fight. And, to me, the lawsuit just felt like it was just—it was a power move.

AMY GOODMAN: So, how did Oliver North get ousted?

MIKE SPIES: Well ultimately, I mean, in theory—I mean, technically, he decided to resign. So, what happened was, right before the annual meeting, well, our report came out. There were some other reports also that came out, in the Times and The Wall Street Journal, that were starting to draw attention to some of the larger issues that have been playing out. But right before the annual meeting, to everyone’s great surprise, the NRA turned around and sued its most important vendor, Ackerman McQueen.

And most of that lawsuit is focused on Oliver North. So, it put him in sort of an impossible position. You were pointing out the Iran-Contra episode. He’s not someone, I think, who, at this stage in his career, is looking to court more controversy. And it sort of put him in an extremely difficult position, which seems like that was the intention. And still, got to the annual meeting.

The reports had come out about these sort of widespread institutional problems that have resulted in—you know, characterize it however you want—people getting very rich, perhaps in ways that they should not, off of a nonprofit, and Wayne LaPierre, in different ways, being connected to that. And Wayne LaPierre also personally being someone who’s gotten extremely wealthy from his role with the NRA.

And I think Oliver North was set up to fail. I mean, he tried to come in and basically tried to get Wayne to resign, which, I think, clearly was never going to happen. And perhaps that was a face-saving measure: “I’ll come forward. I’ll do that. It’s been outed that I’m getting paid by this firm. But also, like, if that’s going to happen, I might as well just draw attention to like the entire issue, which is that it’s not really just about Ackerman McQueen. It’s the NRA that’s sick and going along with these arrangements. It’s not the vendors themselves.”

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about New York’s Attorney General Letitia James opening an investigation into the NRA’s tax-exempt status.

MIKE SPIES: Right. So, there’s this question, which is: What is the purpose of a nonprofit? A nonprofit, as defined in this country, is it’s supposed to serve a social welfare purpose. The large question is: If the nonprofit’s budget is—so much of its budget is going toward the enrichment of a small group of people—management, vendors, people connected to management, etc.—is it actually a nonprofit, and does it deserve to be subsidized by taxpayers? Which is what it is. It’s a tax-exempt nonprofit.

And the NRA is chartered in New York, which gives Letitia James regulatory authority over whether or not it should in fact exist here. So, what she’s going to look at is, one, is the NRA’s board doing its due diligence and actually taking seriously its oversight responsibility, or has it effectively been a rubber stamp for Wayne LaPierre and some of the other folks who have been engaging in this behavior? It certainly seems like, at best, that a lot of information, according to the documents that I obtained, has been kept from the board, or the board just decided to say, “OK, we just will go along with whatever it is you’re doing, even if it raises a lot of serious questions.”

AMY GOODMAN: And what does it mean if it loses its tax-exempt status?

MIKE SPIES: Well, if it loses its tax-exempt status, which is, I guess—the tax-exempt issue, or whether or not it can keep its tax-exempt status, is ultimately an IRS issue. And that doesn’t mean the organization goes away. But it’s obviously a massive hit to its reputation and also its business model. What Letitia James can do is sanction board members, remove board members, dissolve the board entirely. Or, because of the authority that she has, she can just wrap up the organization. She could, ultimately, through the courts, shut it down.

AMY GOODMAN: You mentioned Dana Loesch before. I want to go to an NRA promotional video featuring spokesperson Dana Loesch touting the benefits of the controversial NRA Carry Guard program.

DANA LOESCH: There is no other organization in the United States of America that can do what NRA has done with Carry Guard. There is no organization that gives you that gold standard protection and assurance. There is no other organization that is going to pull in experts from every field, every part of the country, in every part of the state, to provide you with not only the most elite training that you could ever get anywhere, but also the most comprehensive coverage. No other organization comes close. No one cares like the NRA does.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Dana Loesch. Some might know who she is from the town hall after Parkland, when she was speaking for the NRA. You write that gun control advocates disparage Carry Guard as murder insurance, and NRA staff members question the value of the program but were subject to intimidation if they disagreed. Explain what this program is, why it’s controversial.

MIKE SPIES: It has been controversial within and without. So, controversial without for, I think, reasons that are obvious to anyone. Its chief component is an insurance product that you can purchase that would insure your legal proceedings in the event that you shot someone. So, that’s why it’s called murder insurance. They call it self-defense insurance. You shoot someone in self-defense; this is here to protect you, because it can be so costly to defend yourself after you’ve killed someone or maimed them. But that obviously is problematic from virtually every regulatory perspective in the state of New York and also a host of other states, which is why it’s been barred from being sold here. You can’t insure yourself against future legal proceedings. I mean, the incentives that that could create are highly problematic.

So, there’s the insurance component, and then there’s also a training component, which celebrates or pushes a military-style tactical training—not the firearms training that’s taught by the vast majority of NRA-certified instructors who are concerned with safety—target shooting, and there are just proper ways to handle a firearm. This is training that’s being overseen and pushed by like former special operations people, because it’s, in many ways, a useful marketing ploy.

So, the program became especially important after the 2016 election, because the NRA spent more than $50 million putting itself far deeper into the financial hole. And once Trump was elected, it meant they weren’t going to be able to fundraise against a Democratic president, which is something that they do quite successfully. Previously that was Barack Obama. Now, all of a sudden, you have a friendly person in the White House. Revenues did immediately drop as a result of that.

Carry Guard was supposed to safeguard the NRA’s financial future and bring in a new age of prosperity, a lot more money to replace what had been lost. Of course, it has not only not done that, but has been an epic disaster. And it was a disaster that was forewarned by people within the organization who had, one, a problem with the actual insurance side, questioning whether or not it was legal, and, two, the training part of it, which was sort of an affront to the traditional training that the organization provided.

Just per what Dana Loesch was saying, what is empirically true is that the NRA’s core mission was supposed to be education, safety and training. They have, every year, substantially decreased their investment in the core mission, despite the fact that they launched this splashy program called Carry Guard, to the point that now it accounts for less than 10% of their budget. They spend much more money, and increasingly more amounts of money, on messaging and the sort of thing that you just watched, which is all for the purpose of continuing to raise funds. So, I mean, Carry Guard is a really glossy, you know—

AMY GOODMAN: I want to end by asking you about, right now, as we move into 2020, so relevant, the whole power of the NRA in the elections. And I want to go back to a 2016 ad from the NRA’s “Freedom’s Safest Place” campaign, featuring country music star Charlie Daniels.

CHARLIE DANIELS: To the ayatollahs of Iran and every terrorist you enable, listen up! You might have met our fresh-faced flower child president and his weak-kneed Ivy League friends, but you haven’t met America. You haven’t met the Heartland, where the people will defend this nation with their bloody, calloused bare hands, if that’s what it takes. You haven’t met the steel workers and the hard rock miners or the swamp folks in Cajun Country who can wrestle a full-grown gator out of the water. You haven’t met the farmers, the cowboys, the loggers and the truck drivers. You don’t know the mountain men, who live off the land, or the brave cops, who fight the good fight in the urban war zones. No, you’ve never met America. And you ought to pray you never do. I’m the National Rifle Association of America, and I’m freedom’s safest place.

AMY GOODMAN: NRAFoundation.org. That was the country music star Charlie Daniels. Talk about the significance of the message there, in 2016, and where all of this could be going in 2020. You have perhaps the most powerful grassroots movement for gun control, yet almost getting—well, getting very little accomplished legislatively. But in terms of laying a foundation for massive changes, as they take on President Trump, there is potential there.

MIKE SPIES: There is potential there. And—

AMY GOODMAN: First, the foundation.

MIKE SPIES: First, the foundation, OK. So, that is part of an ongoing campaign, “Freedom’s Safest Place,” which is an Ackerman McQueen-produced campaign, which, to be, again, totally fair, an Ackerman-produced campaign that, according to affidavits that I’ve seen, has been—was always signed off on by Wayne LaPierre. It’s not, again—there’s a suggestion that is now being put out there that this is sort of like “I didn’t know” or “I don’t really—just, we’re not aware of it.” I mean, this is something that he previews and that he says, “OK, like, this works. Let’s do it.”

So, this plays into the story that the NRA tells, which is that we’re representing the populace, the people, the calloused-hand people in the middle of the country, the people who are the real Americans, the rugged individualists, those that stand up for freedom, etc. But it’s a totally bogus narrative that’s being perpetrated by people who have nothing to do with that. We’re talking about, I mean, the wealthiest of the wealthy. There’s this—you know, those who are conceiving of this elite-bashing messaging, and those who play into it, such as the NRA’s senior management, are the elites. They are the people who have gotten insanely rich off of this issue by getting people who do live in the middle of the country to give the NRA their money.

And as far as 2020 goes, they’re in a really diminished state to have any effect on that election. And even when they were in a position to have a lot of effect, when they did spend a lot of money, it’s still not totally clear if those were races that they moved the needle on or if they were going to go the way they wanted anyway, but spending on them at least had the look of effectiveness. But now they’re not in a financial position to spend more than $30 million on a single candidate. They’re not going to be—and they’re just not going to be able to do that.

AMY GOODMAN: And that $30 million number is the money they spent on?

MIKE SPIES: On Donald Trump, in 2016. And if they did do it, it would be because they were borrowing—I mean, it would be borrowing more money. It would mean digging themselves in a deeper financial hole.

AMY GOODMAN: And what about Donald Trump’s relationship with the NRA?

MIKE SPIES: I mean, unlike any other president—I mean, policy aside, he shows up at all of their annual meetings. He’s a main attraction, and the membership adores him. I’ve been there for when he speaks. In fact, the hall is usually filled up when he’s there, and then, when he leaves or he finishes, everyone leaves, and basically no one is in the room when Wayne LaPierre speaks, which tells you something. In actuality, I don’t know that he’s been that good for the NRA in terms of what they push to their membership. You know, there’s been bump—you know, regulations have come into effect since he’s been president.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, bump stocks, after how long?

MIKE SPIES: Right, so, have come into effect since he’s been president. So, there is some disconnect between like what he puts out there and what actually is happening, as with everything with Donald Trump. I don’t—

AMY GOODMAN: He has prevented any kind of significant gun reform legislation—


AMY GOODMAN: —federally, certainly.

MIKE SPIES: Well, virtually, that’s just the Republican Party, in general. I mean, as long as there’s a gridlocked Congress and as long as the Republican Party perceives some kind of benefit from being fully aligned with the NRA—because the NRA is an exclusively, and empirically so, an exclusively partisan organization. There was a time, even not too long ago, where it still gave some money, even if it was nominal, to Democrats, in order to keep its influence broader than it is now. But that’s not the case anymore. So, as long as Republicans hold a majority in the Senate, it will be an insurmountable obstacle, most likely. But the moment they don’t, or the moment that Democrats control both chambers of Congress and there’s a Democrat in the White House, when that scenario does happen—and eventually, I mean, it probably will, at some point—the NRA is going to have no sway at all. It won’t be able to do anything. And I think that gun violence prevention groups are very aware of that and will be able to exploit it.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you so much, Michael Spies, for joining us, 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.” His follow-up piece this week headlined ”NRA Memo Reveals New Details About Leadership’s Conflicts and Unexplained Spending.”

To see Part 1 of our conversation, go to democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.

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