NRA CEO Wastes Members Money On Expensive And Personal Private Jet Use
Itineraries, other records show NRA paid for flights to and from Nebraska, where niece and her daughter live. NRA CEO Wastes Members Money On Expensive And Personal Private Jet Use
The National Rifle Association paid for private jets to fly to and from central Nebraska to ferry relatives of the group’s chief executive, Wayne LaPierre, according to travel itineraries, emails and aviation records reviewed by reports.
One such trip took place in April 2017, when Mr. LaPierre and his wife, Susan, returned from meetings and a Nascar race the NRA chief attended in the Dallas area, according to a travel itinerary reviewed by the Journal and a person familiar with the matter.
On the flight back to NRA headquarters near Washington, D.C., the jet detoured about 500 miles out of the way to Grand Island, Neb., “to pick up Colleen” and her daughter, the itinerary says.
Colleen Sterner, a niece of Susan LaPierre, lives in Nebraska and is a low-level employee of the gun-rights group. The LaPierres have no children and Mrs. LaPierre is close to her niece and her niece’s young daughter, according to people familiar with the matter.
Such a detour on that type of jet typically would cost about $5,000, according to two charter-jet operators.
An NRA spokesman, Andrew Arulanandam, said that although Ms. Sterner typically flies on commercial airlines for her job, “she has occasionally traveled via private aircraft with NRA officials and vendors in connection with her professional responsibilities. On occasion, she has been transported to her area of residence in connection with such travel.”
The NRA didn’t respond to questions about the business purpose for taking Ms. Sterner’s daughter on trips with the LaPierres. Ms. Sterner didn’t respond to requests for comment.
The private-jet travel for Mr. LaPierre’s relatives is the latest revelation of questionable spending by the NRA chief, which has included more than $540,000 of travel and wardrobe expenses billed to an outside contractor and an aborted plan to use NRA money to buy a $6 million mansion for the NRA chief, according to NRA documents and documents related to the planned real estate deal reviewed by the Journal.
Mr. LaPierre, who has run the nonprofit NRA since 1991, has successfully fended off internal challenges over his expenses and purged opponents inside the gun-rights group. His expenses remain a focus of a continuing investigation by New York Attorney General Letitia James.
The NRA has said the expenses were justified for business purposes.
Susan LaPierre has an unpaid position as co-chair of the NRA’s Women’s Leadership Forum, which holds occasional events around the country. Her 40-year-old niece, Ms. Sterner, works in fundraising for that NRA women’s group and is paid about $70,000 a year, according to a person familiar with the matter.
The NRA declined to discuss any specific flights that Ms. Sterner was on. The Journal reviewed several itineraries prepared for the LaPierres and examined FAA records for a small charter operator often used by the NRA. There were at least seven flights since mid-2016 that briefly stopped at airports in central Nebraska, on journeys that matched those itineraries or the timing of NRA events attended by the LaPierres.
In June 2017, when Mr. LaPierre spoke at a conservative conference aimed at young women in Dallas, one of that operator’s jets flew round trip from Washington to Dallas, stopping in Nebraska on both legs, the records show.
Several months later, Mr. and Mrs. LaPierre attended an NRA Women’s Leadership summit in Dallas. After the September 2017 event, one of the charter firm’s jets flew from Dallas to central Nebraska and on to Washington, the records show.
Brinkley Dickerson, an Atlanta attorney who advises companies on compliance issues involving use of private aircraft, said such trips arguably had a business purpose given that Mrs. LaPierre’s niece is an NRA employee. But if he were a donor or member of the nonprofit organization, he added, “I’d certainly be really pissed off.”
Mr. LaPierre frequently travels by private jet on NRA business and often stays in luxury hotels, the records reviewed by the Journal show. For the April 2017 Dallas trip, the LaPierres were booked for three nights into a Premier Villa at the Four Seasons at $645 per night for the first two nights, an itinerary shows. (The third night was free.)
During a May 2017 trip to Los Angeles for an NRA event, Ms. Sterner and her daughter stayed in their own suite at the Four Seasons hotel in Beverly Hills, where the LaPierres also stayed, according to a person familiar with the matter. It couldn’t be determined who paid the hotel bill. FAA records show a jet from a different operator flew from Washington to North Platte, Neb., to Los Angeles just ahead of that event.
Last year, the LaPierres twice toured a $6 million Dallas mansion that the NRA contemplated buying for its chief, after he became concerned about his safety following a mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Fla. The mansion deal never happened.
One of the dates they visited the mansion was April 10, 2018. The LaPierres were in Dallas for business reasons, according to a person familiar with the matter. The following day, a jet from the same small charter operator left Dallas, stopped in Grand Island, Neb., then continued to Washington.
NRA’s Ties To Russian Nationals Alleged In New Report
Democrats’ report also calls out the nonprofit for paying for a Moscow trip where leaders engaged in personal business.
National Rifle Association funds paid for lodging and travel of Russian nationals throughout 2015 and 2016, as part of a relationship that allowed foreign actors looking to influence the U.S. election, including now-convicted Maria Butina, to infiltrate the gun-rights group, a new report asserts.
The report, released Friday by Democrats on the Senate Finance Committee, also says NRA leaders traveled to Moscow in December 2015 partly on the NRA’s dime, even though some went there to pursue their own personal business opportunities. This raises questions, the report says, about whether they violated laws on how nonprofit funds can be used.
The trip to Moscow gave Russians an opening to the organization as the election was ramping up, as well as access to other events involving Republican party leaders, the Democrats say.
The committee’s Republican majority issued a rebuttal, saying the Democrats are using “facts and innuendo” about the NRA-Russia ties that “together demonstrate little to nothing,” and said the “extent of the evidence reviewed does not raise concerns the NRA abused its tax-exempt purposes when some of its high-ranking officials traveled to Russia in December 2015.”
A representative of the NRA didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
The Democrats’ report also documents a parallel effort by then-Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak to build relationships with NRA officers. It says the NRA delegation in Moscow met with more senior officials than previously known, including multiple oligarchs close to President Vladimir Putin, two sanctioned individuals, and a person Ms. Butina claimed was Mr. Putin’s campaign manager.
Ms. Butina, a Russian gun enthusiast, was sentenced to prison in April after pleading guilty to conspiring to influence U.S. politics. She and a Russian official named Alexander Torshin helped organize the 2015 Moscow trip and developed close relationships with NRA leaders, the report says.
As a nonprofit organization, the NRA is not supposed to use its funds for insiders’ personal benefit. The NRA already is being buffeted by allegations of spending abuses and cozy vendor dealings that have benefited CEO Wayne LaPierre and other top officials or their family members.
The Moscow travel “was an official trip undertaken so NRA insiders could get rich—a clear violation of the principle that tax-exempt resources should not be used for personal benefit,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, of Oregon, one of the Democrats who has been probing the NRA’s ties to Moscow.
The report calls on Congress to “explore options to reform tax-exempt laws to protect against foreign threats,” but it is unlikely to provoke any immediate legislative impact. Republicans hold a majority of Senate seats, and the party has expressed its continued support of the NRA and has shown little interest in tightening restrictions on tax-exempt organizations.
The Democrats’ report includes new details about the relationship between the NRA and the Russian nationals, pushing back on the gun group’s early assertions that it was not working with them in an official way. The report documents formal communications with the Russian nationals and details how NRA funds ended up in a shell company set up by Ms. Butina to reimburse her for costs associated with the 2015 Moscow trip.
The gun group’s leaders introduced the Russian nationals to Republican Party leaders at its annual meetings and board meetings and helped them gain access to other conservatives at events such as the National Prayer Breakfast, the report says.
“NRA resources appear to have been used to pay for membership and registration fees to third-party events for the Russian nationals as well as to arrange for transit to and lodging for many of those events throughout 2015 and 2016,” the report says.
The report suggests at least somebody associated with the NRA had misgivings about Ms. Butina. After she was introduced to Donald Trump Jr. at the 2016 NRA annual meeting, this person texted the younger Mr. Trump: “I understand that someone introduced a Russian gal to you this week. I’ll fill you in this week but I would steer clear if she tries to reach out to you.”
The previously undisclosed text message was provided by the NRA, the report says, adding that the group didn’t identify the sender or respond to other questions about the message.
A spokesman for Donald Trump Jr. declined to comment.
The new report digs into the origins of the December 2015 NRA trip to Moscow, and what happened afterward. Although the NRA has claimed the members who traveled to Russia were not authorized to do so in an official capacity, the Democrats’ report provides evidence to the contrary.
The report says NRA then-President Allan Cors withdrew from the trip, but wrote Mr. Torshin, the Russian official, on his NRA letterhead designating others as representing “the NRA and our five million members.”
After the Treasury Department cautioned then-NRA Vice President Pete Brownell against meeting with U.S.-sanctioned Russians while abroad, the compliance director of Mr. Brownell’s private company assured him such meetings would be permissible because “he planned to do so as part of a cultural exchange in his official capacity as a member of the NRA’s delegation.”
Mr. Brownell agreed to go on the trip only because his gun-retail operation, Brownells Inc., had business interests in Russia, the report alleges. “I am not interested in attending if just an nra trip,” Mr. Brownell wrote his compliance director, saying the trip was “an opportunity to be hosted in Russia to broaden our business opportunities.”
A spokesman for Mr. Brownell said he was a last-minute addition to the trip and “sought out and obtained compliance guidance,” adding he wouldn’t have gone if it wasn’t an NRA trip. The spokesman also said Mr. Brownell received no business for his company as a result of the trip and has fully cooperated with all inquiries into this matter.
Mr. Brownell and Ms. Butina traveled around Russia together for three days to explore business opportunities before the rest of the NRA delegation arrived in Moscow, the report says.
The Republican rebuttal says Mr. Brownell’s dual-purpose trip “appears to be entirely normal behavior for a CEO of a major firearms retailer, as the facts show Mr. Brownell started his December 2015 trip to Russia for this personal-professional purpose and then concluded it with an NRA-focused goodwill purpose.”
Mr. Brownell initially picked up some of the trip costs, including a $6,000 payment to Ms. Butina’s shell company, and shortly afterward was reimbursed by the NRA, the report says. When the trip came under scrutiny in early 2018, Mr. Brownell repaid $17,000 to the NRA as a way of “getting the trip off the NRA’s books,” Mr. Brownell’s counsel told investigators.
NRA Paid Wayne LaPierre $2.2 Million in 2018, a 55% Increase
National Rifle Association filings detail CEO’s compensation, also show that former President Oliver North was paid $1.38 million for a TV contract.
National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre’s compensation rose 55% in 2018, to $2.2 million, and former NRA President Oliver North received $1.38 million as part of a since-disputed contract to host an NRA TV show.
The compensation figures for the NRA officers, reported Friday in the group’s annual Internal Revenue Service filing, come as the gun-rights group is under scrutiny over disclosures about Mr. LaPierre’s expenses and numerous financial dealings between the NRA and its top officials or their relatives.
The filing showed a partial bounceback in NRA revenue after a low point in 2017. Revenue rose 13% to $352.6 million, while expenses rose 7%. The nonprofit group posted a loss of $2.7 million for the year.
Mr. LaPierre, who has weathered an internal board revolt this year over his expenses and an aborted plan by the NRA to buy him a $6 million mansion in 2018, saw his bonus triple to $455,000 in 2018. He also received $366,000 from a deferred-compensation plan.
His base salary rose to $1.27 million from $1.17 million in 2017.
“The filing reflects adjustments to the compensation of certain senior officers, pursuant to benchmarking and detailed analysis conducted by an independent compensation committee,” said Andrew Arulanandam, an NRA spokesman. “Mr. LaPierre’s compensation includes benefits made payable under his retirement plan.”
Mr. North, who in May 2018 became NRA president, an unpaid job, signed a three-year contract with the NRA’s then-ad agency, Ackerman McQueen, to host a TV program for the NRA. Mr. North’s representatives have said he was recruited to the job by Mr. LaPierre and the contract was to replace a prior arrangement as a Fox News contributor.
Representatives of Mr. North couldn’t be reached for comment.
Mr. North’s reported pay of $1.38 million from Ackerman covers May to December 2018, suggesting his annualized compensation was about $2.1 million. Details of his pay have been confidential until now. Mr. North stepped down as NRA president in May 2019.
Mr. North’s compensation became the focus of dispute earlier this year, after Mr. North, while still the organization’s president, attempted to get the board to investigate whether there was financial impropriety in Mr. LaPierre’s clothing and wardrobe expenses paid by Ackerman.
Mr. LaPierre in turn accused Mr. North and others of fomenting an internal coup on behalf of Ackerman. The NRA in legal filings has since claimed that its board wasn’t aware of all the details of Mr. North’s contract with its former ad agency, and that Mr. North and Ackerman delivered only three of 12 promised episodes of his program in the contract’s first year.
In addition to Mr. North, 11 other members of the 76-member board of directors received compensation totaling $617,000. Compensating nonprofit board members generally is frowned upon, though not prohibited, by the IRS.
The Independent Sector, a group that offers expertise to charities, notes on its website that paid board members can find it difficult to “put the interests of the organization above their personal interests and make decisions they believe are in the best interest of the organization.”
In the tax return, the NRA explained that some board members were paid “for other reasons, not for their voluntary board service.” For example, it said, Ted Nugent, a hard-rock musician on the NRA’s board, was paid about $64,000 for “other professional services.”
In previous years, Mr. Nugent was paid for signing guitars for NRA fundraisers, and the NRA paid a total of $120,000 in 2017 and 2018 to advertise on a TV program Mr. Nugent hosted and produced, according to board minutes obtained by The Wall Street Journal. A publicist for Mr. Nugent didn’t respond to a request for comment.
The NRA’s legal fees have ballooned in 2018 and 2019 as the group embarked on litigation involving Ackerman, Mr. North, and officials in New York state, where the NRA is legally based. The filing showed that Brewer Attorneys and Counselors, the main outside law firm handling much of the litigation, leapt to become the NRA’s third-biggest outside vendor, receiving $13.8 million in 2018.
Ackerman was the largest outside vendor, having been paid $32 million, plus $6.3 million for out-of-pocket expenses, including media buys and “reimbursement of travel and business expenses.” The NRA ended its contract with the ad firm earlier this year and legal disputes between them continue.
New York Attorney General Seeks To Dissolve National Rifle Association
State probe into nonprofit alleges it found tens of millions in diverted funds, mismanagement; NRA calls suit ‘a rank political vendetta’.
New York Attorney General Letitia James has filed a lawsuit seeking to dissolve the National Rifle Association, alleging that insiders violated the state’s nonprofit laws by illegally diverting tens of millions of dollars from the group through excessive expenses and contracts that benefited relatives or close associates.
The extraordinary move against the nation’s largest gun-rights group comes after an 18-month investigation by Ms. James. As a nonprofit registered in New York since its founding in 1871, the NRA is regulated by the attorney general’s office.
Separately, the Washington, D.C. attorney general on Thursday sued the NRA and the NRA Foundation, alleging the organizations misused Foundation funds for noncharitable purposes.
The New York suit alleges that longtime CEO Wayne LaPierre and three other top officials “instituted a culture of self-dealing, mismanagement, and negligent oversight at the NRA,” failed to properly manage the organization’s money and violated numerous state and federal laws.
The NRA quickly responded by filing a lawsuit in New York state court seeking an injunction against Ms. James, claiming she was targeting the organization for political reasons.
“This was a baseless, premeditated attack on our organization and the Second Amendment freedoms it fights to defend,” said NRA President Carolyn Meadows in a statement.
She called the New York lawsuit “a transparent attempt to score political points and attack the leading voice in opposition to the leftist agenda. This has been a power grab by a political opportunist—a desperate move that is part of a rank political vendetta.”
Among the allegations in the attorney general’s suit against the 70-year-old Mr. LaPierre, a national figure who has run the NRA for three decades: That he spent $3.6 million of NRA funds over the last two years on unwarranted travel consultants, flew family members on NRA-paid private jets when he wasn’t aboard and secured a $17 million post-employment contract for himself without board approval.
Since 2015, he also allegedly took eight trips to the Bahamas by private air charter, often picking up his niece and her family in Nebraska along the way, according to the complaint. The trips cost the NRA more than $500,000, the complaint says.
During trips to the Bahamas, Mr. LaPierre’s hotel expenses were picked up by the principal behind several large NRA vendors, who also gave Mr. LaPierre use of a 108-foot yacht named Illusions, the complaint alleges. Mr. LaPierre testified that family members sometimes stayed on the yacht with him, according to the complaint.
Ms. James at a news conference Thursday rejected claims that the lawsuit was politically motivated, saying “we follow the facts and the law,” and that the NRA was serving as a “personal piggy bank” for the four individual defendants.
“The corruption was so broad,” she said, that she had no choice but to seek to dissolve the organization to protect its members and donors.
The lawsuit is a civil complaint filed in New York state court, but at the press conference Ms. James said her investigation was ongoing. She said she would refer the matter to the Internal Revenue Service and didn’t rule out a criminal referral to the Manhattan District Attorney if the probe warrants it.
The NRA has defended its governance practices in previous interviews with The Wall Street Journal. NRA attorney William A. Brewer III, at the time the attorney general’s investigation became public in April 2019, said the group “has full confidence in its accounting practices and commitment to good governance.”
In the lawsuit, the attorney general’s office is seeking restitution from the individual defendants, removal of Mr. LaPierre and the group’s general counsel from their positions, and to have the defendants barred from ever serving again as directors of a New York-registered charity.
Thursday’s legal action by a Democratic attorney general against a leading conservative organization, amid a heated election season, undoubtedly will spark a partisan uproar.
President Trump criticized the lawsuit, calling it a “terrible thing” while departing the White House on Thursday for a trip to Ohio. “I think the NRA should move to Texas and lead a very good and beautiful life,” he said.
As a nonprofit, the NRA is required to use its money in a way that serves its members’ interest and advances its social-welfare mission.
It is rare for a New York attorney general to attempt to dissolve a major charity. The office has closed down a half-dozen smaller charities in recent years, including the Trump Foundation, which dissolved after settling with Ms. James over misspending allegations.
Mr. Trump acknowledged some of the allegations but called the case “politically motivated harassment.”
One major case occurred in the 1940s, the attorney general’s office said, when the state dissolved the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan.
Nonprofit legal experts previously had speculated that Ms. James would seek changes to the NRA after her investigation, rather than dissolve it, because the group could reconstitute itself in some friendlier state.
Also, some warned that moving to dissolve the NRA could spark a tit-for-tat war, with conservative states taking similar actions against liberal nonprofits.
The Washington, D.C., attorney general’s suit seeks return of NRA Foundation funds allegedly wasted on the NRA and a court order to ensure the foundation is operated independently. The NRA Foundation, which is a related 501(c)3 charity, is regulated by that attorney general’s office.
The NRA has been racked since early last year by internal turmoil over allegations of financial improprieties. Following what he claimed was a coup attempt, Mr. LaPierre elbowed out several top officials, including former NRA President Oliver North and the organization’s former No. 2 executive. Both men denied any coup attempt.
The Journal previously reported on questionable practices at the NRA, including more than $540,000 in travel and wardrobe expenses for Mr. LaPierre billed to a vendor, his use of private jets to ferry family members, and belated board approval of numerous financial dealings with board members.
The NRA has said the expenses had business justifications and, before approving them, that the board confirmed the financial dealings were at fair market value and in the best interests of the organization.
The attorney general’s investigation, outlined in the detailed, 164-page complaint, found a host of alleged new issues that hadn’t been publicly reported.
Mr. LaPierre, the attorney general’s office alleged, spent several million dollars annually in NRA funds on security for himself and his family without sufficient oversight and received more than $1.2 million in expense reimbursements over four years for items including gifts for friends and golf membership fees.
Some of the alleged expenses involved Mr. LaPierre’s wife, who was co-chair of the NRA Women’s Leadership Forum and in May 2017 was appointed to the board of the National Park Service Foundation.
Over the next few months, Mr. LaPierre charged the NRA $150,000 for private flights for himself, his wife and niece to attend National Park Service Foundation events, plus $14,000 in expense reimbursements, the complaint alleged.
Mr. LaPierre “exploited the organization for his and his family’s financial benefit, and the benefit of a close circle of NRA staff, board members, and vendors,” the complaint alleged.
Many questionable expenses allegedly were concealed by routing them through the NRA’s longtime ad agency, Ackerman McQueen, the Journal previously reported.
The agency would pay for expenses that were largely personal in nature for Mr. LaPierre and other top officials, including private jet travel and fancy meals, then bill them to the NRA in a lump sum amount with no details, the attorney general’s office said.
The roundabout billing practice didn’t comply with IRS requirements, so the expenses should have been included as taxable income for Mr. LaPierre and other recipients, the attorney general’s office said.
The LaPierres couldn’t be reached for comment.
The NRA and Ackerman McQueen parted ways last year and are embroiled in numerous lawsuits. Ackerman has said it was told by Mr. LaPierre that the invoicing practices were needed for security and discretion reasons.
When senior employees left the NRA, the group sometimes gave out “lucrative no-show contracts…to buy their silence and continued loyalty,” according to the attorney general’s office.
The NRA’s audit committee was supposed to oversee the group’s finances, Ms. James’ office said, but routinely approved related-party contracts after the fact and “basically served as a rubber stamp for the organization’s illicit behavior.”
Ms. James’ office also faulted the audit committee for failing to respond adequately to whistleblowers.
Allegations of improper diversion of NRA assets, Ms. James’ office charged, came on top of “grossly excessive salaries and bonuses” that were out of line with best practices. Mr. LaPierre’s pay rose 55% in 2018, the most recently reported year, to $2.2 million.
The NRA has long anticipated that Ms. James might go after the group, after she called the NRA a criminal enterprise during her 2018 campaign. The NRA’s top outside attorney, Mr. Brewer, told board members in January 2019 that he expected Ms. James to “pursue a dissolution action against the NRA,” according to a person familiar with his presentation.
Mr. Brewer also told the board that a separate high-profile lawsuit that the NRA launched in 2018 against Gov. Andrew Cuomo and other officials, alleging that they had targeted the NRA over an insurance matter for political reasons, could help it gain leverage against the expected dissolution action by Ms. James, according to this person.
That lawsuit is ongoing. Mr. Brewer told the Journal last year that the New York lawsuit wasn’t a bargaining tool, but “one of the most important pieces of constitutional advocacy in this country.”
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