NRA President to Step Down From Group in the Grip of a ‘Crisis’

77
FILE -- National Rifle Association President Oliver North speaks at a "Stop Schumer, Fire Claire" campaign stop for U.S. Senate candidate Josh Hawley at the Jefferson County GOP field office, in Imperial, Mo., Nov. 3, 2018. The NRA is dealing with inner turmoil, lawsuits and a newly empowered Democratic House in 2019. (Ryan Christopher Jones/The New York Times)

Supporters of North spoke up during a contentious gathering after his statement, but LaPierre appeared to hold substantial support in the room.

 

INDIANAPOLIS — Oliver North announced Saturday that he would not serve a second term as the National Rifle Association’s president, deciding to step down as the organization grappled with a bitter dispute over its future and its worst leadership crisis in decades.

He made the announcement as the NRA faced a challenge from New York Attorney General Letitia James, who had opened an investigation into the gun group’s tax-exempt status.

On Friday, James’ office sent letters instructing the NRA and affiliated entities, including its charitable foundation, to preserve relevant financial records. Some of the NRA’s related businesses also received subpoenas, according to people with knowledge of the inquiry. A lawyer for the NRA confirmed the investigation.

The move by James came amid a stunning internal power struggle that took a major turn Saturday when North, in a letter that was read on his behalf at the NRA’s convention, said he would not be renominated. He and insurgents in the NRA this past week had been trying to oust Wayne LaPierre, the group’s longtime chief executive.

“It was a great privilege to serve as your president this past year,” North said in the letter. He added that the NRA had “a clear crisis” that it needed to deal with “immediately and responsibly,” and that he had recently created a committee to investigate financial improprieties.

His move appeared to end the struggle against LaPierre, though it was likely that their dispute would be fully resolved at a board meeting Monday. Supporters of North spoke up during a contentious gathering after his statement, but LaPierre appeared to hold substantial support in the room.

Their standoff began Wednesday, when North urged LaPierre to resign. On Thursday, LaPierre sent a letter to the board in which he accused North of threatening to release damaging information about him and other executives if he refused to step down.

The shadow cast by James’ looming action had in some ways spurred the confrontation unfolding at the NRA’s annual convention.

Even before her election in 2018, James had promised to investigate the organization’s tax status, and had told Ebony magazine that the NRA held itself “out as a charitable organization” but was actually “a terrorist organization.”

She has special jurisdiction over the group because it was chartered in New York. Her office has broad authority to investigate nonprofits and can seek a number of potential remedies against them in court; a previous inquiry by James’ predecessors led to the shuttering of President Donald Trump’s charitable foundation, a far smaller enterprise.

“The NRA will fully cooperate with any inquiry into its finances,” said William Brewer, the NRA’s outside counsel, in a statement Saturday. “The NRA is prepared for this, and has full confidence in its accounting practices and commitment to good governance.”

James’ office declined to comment.

Brewer has assailed James in the past for threatening to investigate the NRA before she was elected, saying she was embarking on “a taxpayer-funded fishing expedition.”

But such warnings were taken seriously, and in August the NRA embarked on a review of its relationships with all of its contractors.

NRA officials, including LaPierre, have said that its most prominent contractor, the Oklahoma ad firm Ackerman McQueen, did not compy with its requests to turn over financial records, a contention that Ackerman has contested.

The dispute led the NRA to sue Ackerman this month, and the lawsuit is at the heart of the organization’s infighting. North is an employee of Ackerman and is paid “millions of dollars annually” by the company, LaPierre told the board Thursday night. North had sided with Ackerman in the legal battle, alarming some board members.

The legal fight has crippled a long-standing relationship between the NRA and Ackerman, two organizations that are tightly intertwined. Ackerman came up with memorable lines such as Charlton Heston’s proclamation that his gun would have to be pried “from my cold, dead hands.” Ackerman also developed NRATV, a controversial online streaming network that had aroused concerns among some board members for straying too far from gun rights. The network’s personalities warned of race wars and portrayed the talking trains in the children’s show “Thomas Friends” in Ku Klux Klan hoods.

There are a number of potential issues that could arise in James’ inquiry. Earlier this year, The New York Times reported that the NRA’s affiliated charity, the NRA Foundation, had transferred more than $100 million since 2012 to the NRA, and that it also lent the NRA $5 million in 2017. Donations to the NRA Foundation are tax-deductible, while those to the NRA are not, and the transfers concerned some tax experts.

The Times also reported that the NRA had paid $18 million since 2010 to a company that produces “Under Wild Skies,” a hunting show on NRATV. Tyler Schropp, the NRA’s advancement director, had a stake in the production company until at least 2017; nonprofit rules require a cautious approach for transactions that benefit key executives.

North cited reporting by all three organizations as the impetus for actions he had recently taken, saying “these allegations of financial improprieties could threaten our nonprofit status.”