Two weeks ago, the attorney general of New York, Letitia James, sued to dissolve the National Rifle Association, alleging “years of self-dealing and illegal conduct that violate New York’s charities law and undermine its own mission.” The move came as a surprise to many, but for Tim Mak, an NPR investigative reporter who’s been following the NRA for years, it was just the latest twist in the organization’s long history of legal troubles. On Thursday’s episode of What Next, I talked to Mak about the attorney general’s action, whether it will work, and what it means for the 2020 election. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Ray Suarez: Did Letitia James take a bold or unexpected interpretation of the law when she looked not just to fine the NRA or punish the NRA or scold the NRA but, in fact, end the organization?
Tim Mak: Well, she has the power to do so. There’s precedent to do so, and the law does allow her in the most egregious cases to shut down charitable organizations. The argument the attorney general of New York would make is that the corruption inside the organization is so widespread, so deep, that it can’t be salvaged.
We’re talking things like the use of NRA funds for private vacations. The widespread use of private jets, whether CEO Wayne LaPierre was on the jet or not on the jet. He allegedly chartered private jets for his family members. We’re talking expensive meals, six-figure suit purchases. One of the allegations is that they were very, very generous with former employees or former executives at the organization, and that in some cases this was done in order to buy loyalty, to buy silence, so they wouldn’t talk about what happened there.
Earlier this year, you got hold of some pretty damning recordings from an off-the-record meeting of senior NRA executives.
We managed to get a tape, a secret recording, that showed the NRA’s legal troubles have cost the organization $100 million over the past two years. This is a tape of the board of directors and their internal deliberations earlier this year. NRA CEO and executive vice president Wayne LaPierre says on the tape that they’ve had to really cut a lot of the spending in the organization, and this is in large part due to their legal troubles and their difficulties fundraising as a result of some of the publicly reported cases of financial misconduct.
Remember, this is a tape that was recorded in January of this year. This is before the coronavirus crisis. This is before the New York attorney general’s complaint against the NRA. If they were struggling then, you can only imagine how they’re struggling now.
There have been widespread reports of severe money problems at the organization, whistleblowers on the Champagne lifestyle of senior staff. In its internal operations, did the NRA give any indication they knew investigators were on their trail? Were they tightening things up inside the organization?
I think that they have known for the past two years that they were in some serious legal jeopardy. There’ve been a number of different developments that have led the NRA to this point. The New York attorney general investigation is not the only investigation into the NRA. There have been congressional inquiries on both the House and the Senate side. There have been questions about their links to convicted Russian agent Maria Butina. There have been whistleblower reports. There’s been public investigative reporting. On and on and on. So the NRA has felt the pressure for some time—this is just the hammer dropping.
Who’s funding the NRA?
Of course, the NRA has very wealthy benefactors. But the real power of the NRA comes not from a few very rich people but from the millions of members who very passionately do care about Second Amendment rights and care about the NRA. So the political power and the vast majority of the money comes from grassroots folks—we’re talking folks who are giving 20, 30, 40 dollars a month. They care about this issue, and they think they’re contributing to an advocacy group that handles their money wisely. What the complaint is alleging is that that money was not spent wisely at all.
There have been attempts to take Wayne LaPierre down in the past, and they haven’t worked. Has the NRA been riven by factional fights, by people who want to take the organization in different directions, who want to see new leadership? And does this give them an opening?
There has been a lot of internal turmoil at the NRA in the past. You know, there were attempts to unseat Wayne in the ’90s. But you’ve never seen troubles to this scale. You haven’t seen internal rifts, plus congressional investigations, plus investigations by multiple states’ attorneys general, plus whistleblower complaints. This is really a crisis on a scale that the NRA has never seen before. But at the same time, the NRA has a 76-member board of directors. You do not see a lot of dissension within those ranks. The vast majority of those folks support Wayne and will be with him to the end.
The New York attorney general’s action against the NRA has been dismissed as a partisan vendetta, a politically motivated attack by a prominent Democrat against an organization that’s contributed heavily to and openly supported President Donald Trump. Has Letitia James answered that charge? Is there any way that that can be made to stick?
She’s been asked this question, of course: Is this political? And she responds that it’s not, that this is a case of a charity that’s behaved badly and needs to be held to account for it. Of course, supporters of the NRA will say that the attorney general of New York has disparaged the National Rifle Association in the past, even before coming into office, and that this is entirely a political move. But if you look at the allegations in the complaint and if you look at the evidence, it is very hard to say that the NRA hasn’t been involved in some financial misconduct here. The question is what’s the right step to address it? Is dissolution too harsh an outcome to seek? There are other sanctions that are less serious. You can remove board members. You could remove leadership from positions. There could be fines. The attorney general did take a very aggressive approach to this.
The organization has been a big player in politics. It was a huge donor in the 2016 cycle, giving previously unheard-of sums in the presidential race. Does the NRA have fewer chips to play with in the 2020 cycle?
It’s hard to imagine that they have the resources and the power to be able to play an equivalent role this time around. You know, the NRA makes tens of millions of dollars every year at their annual members meeting, their annual convention. They had to cancel it this year in the middle of everything, largely because of the pandemic. That’s going to hurt them. That’s going to hurt their bottom line. And it’s really going to be an issue when it comes to how much can the NRA actually contribute to this upcoming election.
When is the NRA going to make its answer in court?
With these kinds of legal cases, they can take months, years, to resolve. The NRA has already responded in court. Basically it alleges that this entire situation, the complaints and the investigation, has been political. They’ve said that they’re ready to fight this tooth and nail in court. This could drag out for quite some time because of that.
This is an ecological niche, you might say, in our politics, that would certainly be filled by somebody else if Letitia James got her wish and ended the NRA. Wouldn’t there be any number of organizations that would rise to take its place?
Yeah, that’s true. The NRA takes its power from the millions of very passionate followers it has. That wouldn’t change if the NRA as an organization failed to exist. There are other organizations. But the NRA is such a large and dominant organization in this space. There isn’t really a comparable alternative, at least not in the immediate term.