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.
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