The country’s most powerful gun lobby may have a commanding grip on American politics, but it continues to face revolt from within. The National Rifle Association has been embroiled in a bitter, public civil war for several months following a probe of its finances, and a recently leaked email may have just thrown fuel on the fire.
Over the weekend, former NRA President Marion Hammer sent a private email to board members telling them to fall in line or face the consequences.
Hammer’s letter, previously only reported within the firearms blogosphere, is an apparent response to a number of board members who have posted publicly that they have faced retaliation for questioning alleged financial malfeasance in the organization. Hammer wrote that stripping the assignments was a punishment for ongoing “agitation” that has taken place outside of the “appropriate setting.”
“The NRA finds itself under attack,” Hammer wrote. “Some within our ranks—members of the NRA Board of Directors—have joined in these attacks. There have been leaks of proprietary and confidential information to the front pages of newspapers, websites and social media pages. Members of the board have a fiduciary responsibility to act in the best interests of our Association. Yet, some have chosen not to do so.”
“Those who didn’t get an assignment might want to consider whether or not they want to help us save the Second Amendment or continue on a course detrimental to NRA and our mission,” she concluded. “The decision is ultimately theirs.”
The handful of board members who have publicly reported losing their seats over the past three weeks, meanwhile, claim that it was done out of “retribution” for challenging the group’s reported financial mismanagement.
The NRA’s finances have come under scrutiny this year as New York Attorney General Letitia James announced a probe into the nonprofit’s tax-exempt status following an April exposé published in the Trace and the New Yorker cataloguing accusations of “secrecy, self-dealing, and greed.” Public reporting that began with that lengthy story and has continued for the past three months in other publications has shown, among other things, that the organization lost $10.8 million last year, has frozen its pension fund, and has cut nearly $10 million from gun training programs, ostensibly one of the organization’s core missions. On the same day that news of James’ investigation was first reported in April and in the midst of the NRA’s annual convention, Oliver North stepped down as the organization’s president. The Washington Post further reported last month that the nonprofit’s spending had included “nearly $275,000 in personal charges at a Beverly Hills men’s store and more than $253,000 in luxury travel to locations such as Italy, Budapest and the Bahamas” as well as “$13,800 to rent an apartment for a summer intern.” The Post also reported that a quarter of the organization’s 76-member board had in recent years received compensation from the NRA. It’s unclear whether this would meet the standard of illegal self-dealing that could cost the organization its nonprofit status—it could depend on whether the board members received market-rate compensation for services provided—but James clearly aims to find out.
North’s ouster as president in April followed what was described as a failed coup against Chief Executive Wayne LaPierre. Last month, top lobbyist Christopher Cox was also removed after LaPierre accused him of being involved in the internal revolt and after the NRA filed a lawsuit against North for alleged “conduct harmful to the NRA”—a suit which also sought to implicate Cox. Last week in a court filing responding to the suit, North denied that he had sought LaPierre’s removal and claimed that he had been defamed and retaliated against for challenging LaPierre’s spending on “hundreds of thousands of dollars in clothing, private jet travel, and other personal benefits.” On Wednesday, Politico reported that the NRA’s longtime director of public affairs who was “a part of Cox’s inner circle,” Jennifer Baker, would be stepping down.
Hammer did not respond to requests for comment by Slate.*
Hammer’s letter was posted publicly on Sunday to the Facebook page of a group called Save the Second, which says it hopes to reform the NRA from the inside.
At least six board members have publicly said they lost committee assignments after challenging leadership. Contrary to Hammer’s description of them as “attacking” the NRA, they say that by questioning financial misbehavior, publicly and privately, they are attempting to fulfill their own fiduciary responsibilities.
Last month, grassroots activist and board member Timothy Knight reported that he faced “retribution” in the form of lost committee assignments for, in his words, “express[ing] concern over current NRA management’s leadership and spurious spending.” In May, Knight had called for LaPierre’s ouster over what he called NRA leadership’s efforts to “cover up the financial malfeasance of the last 20 years.”
On July 5, NRA board member and former Rep. Allen West published a blog post titled “NRA: National Retaliation Association?” In it, he claimed that he had been removed as vice-chairman of the NRA’s Outreach Committee for having “dared to challenge the cabal of cronyism.” West in May had called for LaPierre’s resignation and said that the NRA’s new president, Carolyn Meadows, and the head of its audit board, Charles Cotton, told “outright lies” to news outlets about what the board previously knew about the controversial spending reports.
On the same day that West claimed he had been retaliated against, Knight published a letter that board member Esther Quisenberry Schneider received, stripping her of committee assignments. Schneider wrote that she had lost the assignments after calling for LaPierre’s resignation. She added that the move “sends a clear message of retaliation.”
On July 10, board member Duane Liptak wrote on Facebook that he had been stripped of all of his formal committee assignments except for one, as well as a committee vice-chairmanship. He described his removals as being placed on the “naughty list.”
On July 12, board member and NRA Institute for Legislative Action Election Volunteer Coordinator Hall of Fame inductee Sean Maloney was reported to have sent a letter to Meadows that claimed he had been “blacklisted for taking actions to obey my oath as an NRA Board Member, and follow the Code of Ethics for Directors of Nonprofit Corporations; which required me to exercise my fiduciary duty of care; which caused me to question management decisions within the NRA, and to further investigate matters of which I was made aware.”
One day later, NRA board member and Soldier of Fortune magazine founder and publisher Robert K. Brown reported on Facebook that he had been removed from the Grassroots Development Committee, the Veteran’s Affairs Committee, and the Legislative Policy Committee. “[Nobody] in the NRA power structure has the guts to explain to me why this was done,” Brown wrote at the time. “NRA leadership lacks any moral character and basically falls under the label of loathsome toads.” (Blogger John Richardson reported that Brown had maintained assignments on the Publications Committee and the Special Contributions Committee. Brown declined to comment to Slate, but said he is a board member.)
Finally, attorney Tiffany G. Johnson, who is not a board member but held a position on the NRA board’s Outreach Committee, wrote in a blog post titled “V for Vendetta” that she had been removed from that committee. Johnson also confirmed to Slate that she had received a forwarded version of the Hammer email from several people.
Johnson’s ouster came after she wrote a public letter in April that was critical of NRA leadership. “I have no proof that I was retaliated against, but I have no alternate explanation to offer you,” she told Slate in an email.
Far from putting the issue to rest, Hammer’s email seems to have only further inflamed the NRA’s internal critics. Save the Second encouraged members to email Hammer directly, commenting: “When Marion Hammer (who rarely attends Board Meetings, gets paid hundreds of thousands of dollars and is under investigation in Florida) speaks, you know that the Old Guard of the NRA and Wayne LaPierre are Nervous.”
Update, July 18, 2019, 4:24 p.m.: Shortly after this piece was published, the NRA issued this response: “Board committee assignments are determined by the president of the NRA,” said Andrew Arulanandam, the managing director of NRA public affairs. “It is not unusual for some board members to rotate off certain committees, given we have a 76-person board. At the end of the day, the president makes the decisions—based on his or her opinion of the needs of the Association, the skills and abilities of the prospective committee members, and each prospective committee members’ commitment to working collaboratively in the best interest of the organization and its members.”
“Our board members are volunteers, and the president is elected by the board. Committee appointments are part of the duty and responsibility of the president of the board—a position being served voluntarily and with great distinction by Ms. Meadows,” Arulanandam added.