Inside Wayne LaPierre’s Battle for the N.R.A.

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investigations, intrigue and infighting that have roiled the National Rifle Association, which he has led since 1991. Now, a once-invincible organization, and its chief, are girding for a legal reckoning. “I mean,” LaPierre said, looking up, “it’s the most painful period of my life.”

His office at the N.R.A.’s headquarters, an unremarkable concrete-and-glass warren in the Virginia suburbs just outside Washington, was largely empty. His desk was bare, the only sign of work life two stacks of yellow legal pads perched on nearby windowsills. He does not use computers. LaPierre has long been the public face of the N.R.A., but he hasn’t sat for an in-depth interview in years. The notable increase in mass shootings, more than two dozen this summer alone, many of them involving the semiautomatic rifles the N.R.A. has championed, has made him defensive. “All these horrible tragedies — after every one, Wayne would be the guy going out there in the media,” he said, referring to himself in the third person. “From Columbine to — you name it — to the Navy Yard to Aurora to Sandy Hook. Every one of them, I was the guy — Parkland — I was the guy out there in the media.” The N.R.A. was “so miscast by the media,” he insisted, he saw little reason to engage reporters. “You just didn’t get a fair shot anymore.”

In person, LaPierre can seem like an absent-minded academic, his hands in motion, his thoughts wandering. (“The joke is that the only way you can have eye contact with Wayne is to lie down on the floor while he’s talking,” one person who worked for the organization told me.) Within the N.R.A., and contrary to his public persona, LaPierre has often been seen as a suit who doesn’t know his way around guns. He is aware of the slight, and tries to compensate. He shot wildlife more than once on the N.R.A.-sponsored TV show “Under Wild Skies” he said, because “one of the raps on me is I wasn’t going hunting enough.” In our three-hour on-the-record conversation in late October, he was occasionally evasive, often startlingly direct and always acutely, sometimes painfully self-aware. At one point, after a lengthy historical digression, he pulled himself up short: “I know I’m just filibustering,” he said. “Do you want me to stop?”

LaPierre has faced many political battles over the course of his long career at the top of the N.R.A., but the personal stakes have never been higher than they have been in the last year. His organization sued Ackerman McQueen, its longtime advertising and public relations firm, which long safeguarded the N.R.A.’s secrets, accusing the firm of overbilling and fraud. He — perhaps temporarily — held off an internal campaign to oust him. And since April, the New York State attorney general, Letitia James, has been conducting a civil investigation of the N.R.A., which is chartered in New York. Now, veterans of the attorney general’s office and some within the N.R.A.’s inner circle believe James will weigh whether to seek a criminal referral related to LaPierre’s use of nonprofit funds for personal expenses.

recent court filings. The company described him as an awkward former “Democratic legislative aide,” ill suited to lead “what many describe as a strident advocacy group,” who “knows little about guns or how to actually use them” and obtained multiple Vietnam-era deferments. LaPierre created “a veritable black hole for unchecked spending,” required Ackerman to pay a retainer to a travel agent used by his family and regarded member money as his “personal piggy bank.” Ackerman also noted, pointedly, that LaPierre has a “preoccupation with possible criminal charges.”

LaPierre, who accused Ackerman of a “smear campaign of lies,” would turn 70 shortly after our interview. Sitting in his office overlooking Virginia woodlands, he acknowledged a sense of mortality. His father, he said, found out he had Alzheimer’s at 75. But no matter how much time he had left, he said, he would spend it doing what he always did: fighting for the N.R.A. — not just against Democratic regulators looking to destroy his organization from without, but also now against the treacherous former allies seeking to do the same from within. “If I lose every friend,” he said, “I’m prepared to do it.”

In 1934, theN.R.A.’s 22nd president, an Olympic marksman named Karl Frederick, testified before a congressional committee weighing a ban on fully automatic guns, providing a view that would be heretical to his organization today. “I do not believe in the general promiscuous toting of guns,” he said. “I think it should be sharply restricted and only under licenses.” For most of the time since the N.R.A. had been founded — in 1871, by two Union Army veterans seeking to improve shooting skills — it has been open to dialogue on gun control. But in 1975, the N.R.A. created a lobbying arm, and the following year it added a political-action committee — and so began its transformation into an active political organization.

LaPierre came on board in 1978. He grew up mostly in Roanoke, Va., where his father was a General Electric accountant, attended Siena College in upstate New York, interned in the State Legislature and worked toward a doctorate in political science and government at Boston College before departing to delve into electoral politics. He helped a Democratic grocery-store owner named Vic Thomas run, successfully, for the Virginia Legislature. Working for Thomas, a stalwart N.R.A. ally, led LaPierre to a job lobbying for the N.R.A.

The group had recently added a new mission to its charter — advancing the “constitutional right both of the individual citizen and of the collective militia” to “keep and bear arms” — and it began giving letter grades to politicians who, in its view, helped advance that mission. Its clout grew. By the early 1980s, mindful of N.R.A. anger against aggressive enforcement actions by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, Ronald Reagan vowed to shutter the agency. But the N.R.A. pivoted after Reagan proposed folding the agency into the Secret Service, a less appealing foil, helping to block the move. LaPierre began to step in front of the cameras after a call came in from the “Today” show. He had never done television before. “I’m sitting in the greenroom, going, ‘I wonder how this is going to work when I pass out.’ ”

A.T.F. raid of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Tex., rhetoric hardened. As we talked in his office, LaPierre brought up, unprompted, an episode from 1995, when a mailer bearing his name referred to A.T.F. agents as “jackbooted government thugs.” The incendiary rhetoric led some, including George H.W. Bush, to resign from the N.R.A. “Dingell actually said the quote,” LaPierre said; Dingell had referred to A.T.F. agents as “a jackbooted group of fascists” in a 1981 N.R.A. promotional film. LaPierre now distances himself from the sentiment. “I remember calling down, going, ‘We couldn’t possibly have a letter out there saying that A.T.F. were a bunch of jackbooted thugs, could we?’ ”

By the 2010s, the once-bipartisan organization had become almost completely Republican in its orientation, hardening political divides. Republicans coveted its money — the N.R.A. donated $20 million to six Republican Senate candidates in the 2016 election cycle — but also its ability to rally grass-roots support with endorsements and independent expenditure advertising campaigns. Even the Russians took notice. In 2014, Maria Butina, a Russian who liked to pose provocatively with rifles and who later pleaded guilty to conspiracy to act as an unregistered foreign agent, began appearing at high-level N.R.A. functions, claiming to be a gun rights activist.

did not aggressively intervene, even as Butina coordinated a 2015 N.R.A. trip to Moscow. “I saw this itinerary that somebody had,” LaPierre recalled. “It’s got all of these meetings with this guy — what are they called? — oligarch so-and-so, and oligarch so-and-so, and deputy so-and-so. And I’m like: ‘You guys are all nuts. Are you crazy?’ ” But the trip, in which several donors and board members, including a former and a future N.R.A. president, met with senior aides to Vladimir Putin, went forward nonetheless.

Over the years, the N.R.A. had become more nonprofit in theory than in practice. Revenue passed $350 million last year, with some prodigious donors continuing into the afterlife (a foundation set up by Robert Petersen, who published Tiger Beat and Guns & Ammo magazines, has contributed at least $56 million since his death in 2007). Much of the money goes to the usual gun-safety programs and political contributions, but there is more and more to go around. In 2017, eight N.R.A. executives outearned the head of the American Red Cross, another tax-exempt organization, and one with 10 times the revenue, according to a previous analysis by The New York Times.

LaPierre’s compensation rose from less than $200,000 a year in the mid-1990s to more than $2.2 million in 2018. Oversight has been complicated by paydays to the 76-member board: $270,000 to one for consulting; $40,000 to another for speeches; $64,000 to the guitarist Ted Nugent, mostly for advertising on a reality-TV show; and $476,000 to buy vintage firearms from the actor Tom Selleck, adding to the N.R.A.’s considerable collection. Senior staff cashed in, too. Tyler Schropp, a fund-raising executive, long had a stake in a production company paid millions by the N.R.A. to produce “Under Wild Skies,” while Michael Marcellin, who handled licensing deals, was paid $535,000 two years after leaving the organization. There was plenty of money for the candidates as well. When Donald Trump emerged as a presidential front-runner in 2016, the N.R.A. spent $30 million to help him get elected, much of it on attack ads warning that Hillary Clinton would “leave you defenseless.”

Angus McQueen had for years served as LaPierre’s principal image-maker, and his company advised him on making over his wardrobe and wrote many of his fiery speeches. LaPierre called him “one of the most creative people that I’ve ever met in my life.” In the early days of the relationship, McQueen worked to soften the N.R.A.’s rough edges. “We’re advertising people, we’re optimists,” McQueen, who died at 74 in July after a struggle with lung cancer, once said in a speech. “Our work fills the spaces that distract the eye from tragedy.”

In recent years, however, that work became increasingly dark, promoting the N.R.A. as the last defense against a threatening world. The apocalyptic promotional effort reached its apotheosis with NRATV, an online streaming service that evolved beyond gun rights into a sort of paranoid-lifestyle channel. Live production was expensive, and more N.R.A. dollars began to flow through Ackerman McQueen.

found some content disturbing. In a court filing, the N.R.A. complained that it had spent millions of dollars on a network “viewed as a dystopian cultural rant that deterred membership growth.”

The N.R.A. says that NRATV’s budget grew from an initial $12 million a year to more than $20 million. “It got to a point where in 2017, I’m starting to look at our ad budget,” LaPierre said, “and I’m starting to really question, ‘How many people are watching this?’ ” The answer, according to an independent analysis by comScore, was: not many.

As N.R.A. money was funding NRATV, LaPierre was charging many of his expenses through Ackerman — charges that were then reimbursed by the N.R.A., an unusual arrangement that has attracted the attention of investigators. In a single May 2004 outing to the Zegna boutique in Beverly Hills, LaPierre dropped nearly $40,000, using a credit card billed through Ackerman and reimbursed by the N.R.A., among nearly $275,000 worth of Zegna purchases through 2017.

“I mean, you could make me look bad and smear me with it,” LaPierre said of the purchases. “But I don’t think there was anything improper about it, given the fact that I was the face of the brand.” What’s more, he said, Ackerman was “advising me to do it. They recommended I do it; they set up the billing.”

LaPierre also billed more than $250,000 in travel through Ackerman for trips to, among other places, the Bahamas, Palm Beach, Reno and Italy’s Lake Como. During a 2014 European trip to film at the Italian gun maker Beretta, he took a side trip to a Four Seasons in Budapest. Was it for N.R.A. business? He met with officials at “the firearms museum there,” he said, and “talked about a trade of whatever,” without offering more detail. Nonetheless, he said he had only used Ackerman McQueen’s credit card because his own cards had been hacked.

Ackerman now says in court filings that “several millions of dollars annually” in expenses for N.R.A. officials were run through the company, adding that LaPierre “made false representations” about expenses used “for his own personal benefit.” After the 2018 Parkland shooting, the N.R.A. even explored having Ackerman purchase LaPierre a $6 million mansion in a Dallas-area gated community. Ackerman said it was LaPierre’s idea. LaPierre said “it was their idea, and I killed it.” (“Wayne LaPierre continues to blame others for his own actions,” Ackerman said in a statement. “No one forced Mr. LaPierre to walk into a Beverly Hills Zegna store and buy a quarter-million dollars of clothing he personally did not pay for.”)

By Aug. 8, 2018, with relations breaking down and pressure building in New York, the N.R.A. sent a letter to Ackerman seeking specific records, including expenses billed to the N.R.A. Stephen M. Ryan, an outside attorney for Ackerman, wrote in a letter that Ackerman’s production of records had been exhaustive. Some of the requested documentation did not currently exist, he wrote, and any documents it produced could become fodder for regulators. He warned that the House of Representatives could change hands in the midterms. “N.R.A. may wish to proceed with caution in creating paper trails,” he wrote.

2017 tax filings were released last year, they showed a nearly-tapped-out $25 million line of credit, backed in part by the deed to its Fairfax headquarters, and that the N.R.A. borrowed against insurance policies taken out on executives. Gun-control groups like Everytown for Gun Safety and Giffords were ascendant, amid outrage about mass shootings, and they outspent the N.R.A. in midterm elections.N.R.A. sued Ackerman, opening internal fissures. Hart, the N.R.A. lawyer who initially approached Brewer, was incredulous. “Let loose the dogs of war,” he emailed an N.R.A. executive. “Brewer just picked a fight with the folks with all the dirt on expenses for the last 30 years.” The move, he wrote, was “too dumb for even a TV reality show.”came to a head on the eve of the N.R.A.’s April convention. As LaPierre later related the incident to the board, North told one of LaPierre’s aides in a phone call that Ackerman would release damaging information, including LaPierre’s clothing and travel records, if he didn’t resign immediately. “Window is short,” North said, according to the aide’s scribbled notes, which I obtained earlier this year. (North said in court filings that LaPierre mischaracterized the call, and that he himself did not “seek the removal of LaPierre.”)

Later that day, LaPierre said Cox — the top lobbyist whom LaPierre had only months earlier talked out of quitting — summoned him to his room at the convention center. “ ‘Wayne, you know, you gotta resign, man,’ ” LaPierre said he was told. “ ‘They’re going to smear you nationwide. It’s going to be horrible.’ ”

has denied that he sought to oust LaPierre, calling the claim “offensive and patently false.” North, for his part, lost the support of LaPierre and the board. He was effectively dismissed later that month. “This is a debacle,” Hart emailed Cooper. “Is Brewer a moron or a Manchurian candidate?”

In August, attorneysfrom James’s office met with North at the Washington offices of Williams & Connolly, home to Brendan Sullivan, who was by North’s side during the Iran-contra hearings more than three decades earlier. This time, James was seeking documents concerning “financial impropriety, mismanagement, misuse or waste of assets, governance failures or other wrongdoing,” according to her office’s subpoena to North. James had come to see him as a key cooperating witness, a once-unthinkable development.

By then, months of leaks had provided plenty of fodder for investigators. James, a Brooklynite who worked her way through Howard University’s law school and served as New York City’s public advocate, has been on the N.R.A.’s radar since she emerged as front-runner last year and declared that the N.R.A. was a “terrorist organization.” When I asked Brewer about the claim, he said it was like “a third-world dictatorship.”

“It seemed unprofessional and inappropriate for someone who is a candidate for that type of high office to prejudge any private citizen with no facts, no evidence,” he said. “You target your enemies and then you figure out a way to use the power that you have to destroy them. That’s not right.” James’s office, in a statement, responded: “We won’t be intimidated by the N.R.A.’s bully tactics, whether in the press or in the courtroom.”

Earlier this month, James’s office sent the N.R.A. a new subpoena, seeking records related to political donations, tax compliance, payments to board members and to the N.R.A. Foundation, an affiliated charity that diverted $36 million to the N.R.A. last year. The foundation’s move raised red flags among tax experts I spoke with, since donations to it are tax deductible, while donations to the N.R.A., which is not a charity, are not deductible. The foundation is also being investigated by Karl Racine, the attorney general of the District of Columbia, where it is chartered.

I asked LaPierre if he worried about his own criminal exposure. “I actually don’t,” he said, citing the safe-harbor provision. He called Brewer’s work “the largest forensic audit that’s ever been done on the association” to “see if there was anything we needed to self-correct.” Tax experts I spoke with, however, noted that such provisions did not generally apply to personal expenses, and in any case would need to have been addressed before James opened the inquiry. The investigation is being led by the charities bureau of the attorney general’s office, which oversees all nonprofits. Such investigations are typically civil procedures, but the office can refer criminal findings to another agency, or be granted criminal jurisdiction by the governor.

“If the expenses incurred by Mr. LaPierre were not legitimate business expenses of the N.R.A., and if he conspired with others within or outside the N.R.A. to incur those expenses in a way that would conceal them, then criminal charges could not only be brought against Mr. LaPierre, but also the others who were involved in the scheme,” said Sean Delany, a former chief of the charities bureau. Daniel Kurtz, another former charities-bureau chief, said the N.R.A. would have to establish that such transactions were “fair, reasonable and in the corporation’s best interest,” adding, “They can assert that, but it’s preposterous.” Kurtz did see some hurdles for a criminal case, based on what was known, because LaPierre was not said to have diverted money directly into his own pocket. But the attorney general can go to court and seek to restructure an organization’s board, oust its management, recoup misspent funds or even pressure it to dissolve.

“Everybody knows we were singled out,” LaPierre said. “Everybody knows that it’s politics.” Whatever the fate of the N.R.A., he has held on far longer than many thought he could. In his spartan office, he seemed weary. After many long years spent building one of the most powerful organizations in Washington, he had found himself isolated and embattled. “Somebody asked me in a deposition how you feel about all of it,” he recalled, briefly looking up once more. “I said I feel sad.”

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