Can NY Take Down the NRA?

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S1: When you give a donation to a not for profit organization, there are rules, a charity in this case, the National Rifle Association, can’t just use that donated money any way it pleases. That’s where New York’s attorney general, Letitia James, comes in.

S2: My office filed a lawsuit against the National Rifle Association to dissolve the organization in its entirety. Four years of self dealing and illegal conduct that violate New York’s charities law and undermine its own mission, Letitia James made this announcement a couple of weeks ago, seemingly out of the blue, pleasing progressives and causing consternation for Second Amendment advocates in some what the attorney general here is alleging is just an incredible culture of self dealing, one of mismanagement, and one where the board of this organization was negligent in overseeing how that money in the organization was being spent.

S1: That’s Tim Mak. He’s an investigative reporter for NPR who’s been following the National Rifle Association closely for years. Did Letitia James take a bold or unexpected interpretation of the law when she looked not just to. Find the NRA or punish the NRA or scold the NRA, but in fact end the organization.

S2: Well, she has the power to do so. I mean, there’s precedent to do so, and the law does allow her in the most egregious cases, to shut down charitable organizations.

S1: Tim says the attorney general has taken down charities doing business in New York before, like the Trump Foundation.

S2: And the argument that 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.

S1: The New York AG’s lawsuit lists dozens and dozens of cases of alleged financial misconduct.

S2: 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. You know, he he allegedly chartered private jets for his family members, even though he wasn’t there. We’re talking expensive meals. We’re talking, you know, six figure suit purchases. I mean, one of the allegations is that they were very, very generous with former employees or former executives at the organization, and this this has been a pattern over time. And what the attorney general of New York did or said was that in some cases this was done in order to buy loyalty, to buy silence of former leaders and former executives inside the organization.

S3: So they wouldn’t talk about what happened there today on the show, what state investigators and a reporter have turned up about the NRA. Will New York State’s probe mean the beginning of the end for an organization already under fire? I’m Ray Suarez subbing for Mary Harris. And you’re listening to what next?

S2: Stick with us.

S1: Earlier this year, Tim Mak got a hold of some pretty damning recordings from an off the record meeting of senior NRA executives.

S4: There was only one path that we could go down, and that’s the path we started down and we never deviate.

S2: We managed to get a hold of a tape, a secret recording that showed that the NRA’s legal troubles have cost the organization a hundred million dollars over the last two years.

S4: The cost that we wore was probably about a hundred million dollars a year in lost revenue and real cost to this association in 2018, 2019. I mean, as you.

S2: This is a tape of the board of directors and their internal deliberations earlier this year and what what NRA CEO and Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre says on the tape is that they’ve had to really cut a lot of the spending in the organization.

S4: We took 80 million real costs out of the NRA. But I mean, we kind of we kind of agree reframe this entire association.

S2: We look at Dallas and, you know, this is in large part due to their legal troubles and 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 this year. This is before the coronavirus crisis. This is before the New York attorney general’s complaint against the NRA. You know, if they were struggling, then you can only imagine how they’re struggling now.

S1: There have been widespread reports, as you allude to, of severe money problems that the organization reporting whistleblowers dime droppers 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?

S2: That’s a difficult question. I think that they have known for the last year and a half, for the last two years that they were in some serious legal jeopardy. There have been a number of different different developments that have led the NRA to this point. The New York attorney general investigation is not the only 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 that convicted Russian agent, Maria Buthayna. There have been whistleblower reports. There’s been public investigative reporting on and on and on. So the the NRA has felt the pressure for some time. This is just the hammer dropping.

S1: You know, that spread around money. Or to allegedly spread around money, you got to have money in the first place. What are the sources of the NRA’s cash when you read about a man spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on suits, when you read about repeated private jet charters, the money’s got to come from somewhere. Who’s funding the NRA?

S2: You know, there’s there’s a tendency for for folks who don’t look too closely at the NRA to think, oh, this is all big money. This is all, you know, high dollar donors. And 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, you know, are given 20, 30, 40 dollars a month. They care about this issue. They care about this cause, and they think that they’re they’re contributing to an advocacy group that handles their money wisely. What the complaint that the attorney general of New York has brought forward is is alleging is that that money was not spent wisely at all. Not at all.

S1: Much of the attention aimed at the organization is centered on Wayne LaPierre, the executive vice president. For almost 30 years. He’s led the NRA’s move to a harder line on any government. Attempts to control firearms in the United States led the counteroffensive after mass murder using firearms and turned his organization into an enemy you don’t want to make if you want a career in Republican politics. For years, there have been shouts and whispers about lavish spending on top of his almost million dollar a year salary. 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?

S2: You know, as you mentioned, 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. You’ve seen, you know, there have been troubles inside the organization, but you’ve never seen troubles to the scale. You haven’t seen internal rifts, plus congressional investigations, plus investigations by multiple states attorneys general, plus whistleblower complaint. This is really a crisis on the scale that the NRA has never seen before. But at the same time, you know, the NRA has a 76 member board of directors. At the same time, you do not see a lot of dissension within those ranks at this point in the NRA’s history. You see a lot of solidarity on that board. The vast, vast, vast majority of those folks support Wayne and will be with him to the end.

S1: I was a little surprised when I watched that news conference that the NRA was incorporated in New York at all, the the state of New York has a history of regulating gun ownership, gun licensing, gun training, being pretty careful compared to other places in America. And certainly if you drive out of Washington, D.C., into the Virginia suburbs, you’ll see an enormous NRA facility there. And if you would ask me before that news conference, where’s the NRA, I would have said Northern Virginia. What was it doing in New York?

S2: Well, the NRA has a very long history. It’s nearly 150 years old. And it was it was founded in the 19th century after the civil war in order to improve basic rifle marksmanship. It’s changed a lot, obviously, throughout the years. But it was originally incorporated in New York and has since moved its headquarters to Northern Virginia, as you say. But its original founding was in the state of New York.

S1: But its documents, its official domicile, whatever was still in New York giving a way for Letitia James to go after it there, yeah, it was founded in New York.

S2: And what’s what’s interesting, though, is that if you do business in New York as a charity, then the charities bureau in New York has jurisdiction over you in some way unless you want to stop doing business in New York. So unless the NRA wanted to, you know, disregard all its members in New York, not hold any fundraisers in New York, it would in some way still fall under the jurisdiction of the New York attorney general.

S1: I see. I see. Now, 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 and openly supported President Trump. Has Letitia James answered that charge? Is is there any way that that can be made to stick?

S2: Well, 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 a disparaged the National Rifle Association in the past, even before coming into office, and that this is entirely a political move by the New York attorney general. But if you look at the allegations in the complaint and if you look at the evidence, it’s very hard to say that the NRA hasn’t been involved in some financial misconduct. It’s very hard to say that. The question is what’s the right step to address it? Is dissolution to harsh an outcome to seek? There are other sanctions that are less serious. You can remove board members. You could you could remove leadership from positions. There could be fines. The attorney general did take a very aggressive approach to this.

S1: 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? Does that give an opening to people who want to take it down, that it in effect is not able to buy the frenzy that it’s had in the past?

S2: Well, look, I’d be very skeptical that the NRA would have the resources to play in the same way as it did in 2016. I mean, it was a major contributor to the president’s electoral success in 2016. It’s hard to deny. I mean, when a lot of the president’s now president’s allies were abandoning him after the Access Hollywood tapes, the NRA doubled down. It stuck with him. It endorsed him very early in the cycle, which was atypical for the NRA. In fact, it endorsed Donald Trump before he had actually become the presumptive nominee, which just hadn’t happened in the history of the National Rifle Association. All of which is to say that the National Rifle Association played a very, very big role in 2016. It’s hard to 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.

S1: You know, if you watch Law and Order, they announce charges, go to commercial and this trial starts right after the commercial break in real life. It often takes a lot longer. When is the NRA going to make its answer in court? When is this thing going to get started? And might the timing be uncomfortable for President Trump in his re-election bid?

S2: Well, as you know, with these kinds of legal cases, they can take months, years to resolve. I mean, the NRA has already responded in court. And basically it said what we’ve discussed today, which is it alleges that the attorney general has has been involved in an attack on on their right to speak out for Second Amendment rights and that this entire situation, the complaints and the investigation has been political. That’s been their argument from day one, from when this complaint came down. So they seem and they’ve said that they’re ready to fight this tooth and nail in court and that, you know, I mean, I think the fact is that this could drag out for quite some time because of that.

S1: As I was listening to Attorney General James give chapter and verse on how the organizations money was being spent alleged by New York state, I wondered, well, this is a. 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?

S2: You know, that’s true. I mean, the NRA, as an organization, like I said earlier, it takes its power from the millions of very passionate followers it has. That wouldn’t change at the NRA as an organization failed to exist. There are other organizations, but the NRA is such a large and dominant organization in the space, there isn’t really a comparable alternative, at least not in the immediate term. I mean, there are organizations like the Second Amendment Foundation and Gun Owners of America. But, you know, I mean, the NRA is so large, raises so much money, has such brand name recognition that there just isn’t an equal or an immediate organization that could step in and fill his shoes.

S3: Tim, thanks a lot for your work. Thank you so much. Tim Mak is an investigative reporter at NPR. He has a book coming out in twenty twenty one called Misfire about his reporting on the NRA. And that’s the show What Next is produced by Mary Wilson, Danielle Hewitt and Jason de Leon with help this week from Daniel Avis. Special thanks as always to Alison Benedikt and Alicia Montgomery. I’m Ray Suarez. I’ll be back next week with more. What next?