My grandson and I are back from our road trip to Indianapolis, where we drove up for the National Rifle Association Annual Meetings & Exhibits. Admission was free for us members, about 75,000 of us, and 15 acres of gun-related exhibits beckoned to enthusiasts.
Longtime readers of this column may recall that I am not a gun enthusiast. I don’t know much about guns, and I’m not very curious. Yes, I had to shoot them and clean them when I was in the Army, but I’ve seldom shot one for fun since I was in junior high school.
I am, however, a freedom enthusiast. I am therefore a Second Amendment true believer.
We live in a diverse and contentious nation. I don’t believe for a moment that we have avoided dictatorship and genocide because we are too altruistic and high-minded for such things. Our republic and we, within it, have been protected by the deterrent effect of the widespread private and anonymous ownership of firearms and ammunition.
That Constitutional right to keep and bear arms will always be under siege. “Freedom,” as Ronald Reagan observed, “is never more than one generation away from extinction.” The NRA has been a potent, principled defender and counter-puncher against those who conspire against our civil right to own and supply the technology to protect ourselves and our republic.
The National Rifle Association
The NRA is a nonprofit corporation with an unusually large board of directors. Maybe there’s another one with 76 directors, but I don’t know of it. I’ve often thought how thrilling the board meetings must have been, kind of like a sports fantasy camp, except that you got to rub elbows with Ted Nugent, Allen West, Ollie North and Wayne LaPierre.
Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre has often been one of my heroes, standing up against fierce and hysterical public attacks when milder, meeker men (like me) might have wilted. And so I’m sentimental about the NRA, deeply committed to its success, and protective against its detractors.
Imagine my dismay, then, to read about the lawsuit it filed in suburban Washington DC this month against Ackerman McQueen, its Oklahoma City-based vendor for public-relations work, event planning, social media and digital content production. For 38 years, Ackerman has shaped the message and image of the NRA.
From My Cold Dead Hands
I have no criticism of Ackerman’s work product. In fact, I think much of it has been inspired, whether the late Charlton Heston’s “cold dead hands” speech nearly 20 years ago, or Charlie Daniels’ 2016 warning to the ayatollahs that heartlanders will defend our country with “bloody, calloused bare hands” if we have to.
But Ackerman billed NRA for $42.6 million in 2017. You’ve got to accept the highest level of transparency and accountability when you’re invoicing that kind of money. And it appears that Ackerman’s not living up to that.
The P.R. firm has sent the NRA vague and incomplete invoices, which is not a scandal. But when NRA employees did their job and insisted on clarification, their superiors retaliated against them. Therein lies the scandal. Many of the most conscientious employees no longer work at NRA. It appears that good stewards are seen as a nuisance by the senior executive staff.
Part of the problem is that key NRA personnel are also on the Ackerman payroll, including President Oliver North. North was not, so far as I know, part of the clique that drove stubbornly ethical employees out. In fact, he is leading the drive to hold LaPierre accountable for financial misconduct.
But even here, his credibility is undermined by his divided loyalties between the NRA and its main vendor. One of the NRA’s legal complaints against Ackerman is the vendor’s refusal to provide a copy of its contract with North. He was coy when asked to provide his own copy of the contract, saying he’d need Ackerman’s consent to disclose his contract with them.
Of course, Ackerman is a privately-owned business. It has no direct legal obligation to us as NRA members. That obligation of vigilance and good stewardship is owed us by the NRA Board of Directors, and its Executive Vice President.
The NRA is roughly $30 million in the red. In previous years, it has run deficits as high as $40 million. Its retirement fund is about $60 million in the hole. Instead of chastening the board and the executive leadership, this seems to have emboldened them. They must be confident that NRA members will rally to the ramparts and dig deep into our own pockets to rescue our beloved organization.
And so Wayne earns about $1.4 million per year, at last count. He took a $4 million retirement distribution a few years ago, so that was over a $5 million year for him.
It’s always a shock when you hear the truth from your enemies instead of your allies, but it took antagonistic journalists to tell us about executives sliding off the NRA payroll and into $600,000 and $700,000 consulting contracts with the NRA. And about nimble wives, children and other family of NRA executives skipping between the payrolls of the NRA and its vendors, at eye-watering salaries.
Even if the NRA’s legal complaint against Ackerman for shady billing practices is airtight, the fact remains that our board has allowed fast-and-loose financial dealings that bring discredit on our organization, and put it at risk of very serious legal attack by hostile regulators in the state of New York.
Foxes Guarding the Henhouse
NRA lawyers and accountants brought insider corruption to the attention of the board’s Audit Committee last year. Emily Cummins, in her 12th year as NRA managing director of tax and risk management, brought her concerns to an emergency meeting of that watchdog committee last July.
But the committee took no effective action, and didn’t notify fellow directors of the problems. The board retroactively approved past actions that should have required their prior approval. And Cummins no longer works at the NRA.
The board didn’t confront its executives and contractors about improper side contracts. There were no contract reviews, investigations or disciplinary actions. Whistleblowers quietly vacated their positions and left the organization.
Hostile Alliance Against the NRA
Or did they? Somebody has been leaking internal documents to Michael Spies, a writer for New Yorker magazine. That magazine has formed an anti-NRA alliance with The Trace, a specialized anti-gun online newsletter owned by New York billionaire Michael Bloomberg. Together, they have pieced together a devastating expose of NRA financial corruption. You can read it online; there’s no pay wall for the first few articles.
The New Yorker is inevitably feeding information to hostile regulators in New York State, where the NRA is incorporated, and where New York (state) Attorney General Letitia James and Gov. Andrew Cuomo are in the driver’s seat.
This board has put our organization, and therefore the Second Amendment, at risk. In some cases, their dereliction is potentially criminal. At the very least, all directors on the audit committee, finance committee and executive committee should resign.
The board apparently saw trouble on the horizon, because it recently revised our by-laws to make their own recall nearly impossible. LaPierre has also taken some precautions, getting the board to add a clause to his employment contract that will guarantee him payment as a speaker and consultant after he retires, beginning at the full Executive Vice President base salary he currently receives.
No Showdown at Indianapolis
I looked forward to the members’ meeting last weekend as an opportunity to vote the rascals out and support reform candidates. But the elections were already over before we met in Indianapolis. Only one director remained to be selected.
Oliver North was a no-show at the annual members’ meeting, so the seat next to the Executive Vice President was vacant. The media-conscious North may have wanted to avoid any new photographs of him in the same frame with Wayne LaPierre. I don’t blame him; it doesn’t feel like a sports fantasy weekend anymore.
He did send a representative in the Pennsylvania delegation, who read his letter from the floor, briefly touching on financial misconduct allegations against LaPierre. Presidents typically serve two one-year terms, but North’s letter announced he will not serve a second term because the board didn’t re-nominate him.
Predictably, the old guard lectured insurgents about washing dirty NRA laundry in public, and the allegations against LaPierre were quickly referred to a closed-door meeting of the board to follow the Annual Meeting. The general membership will not meet again until a year from now, in Nashville.
I hope the NRA still exists this time next year, and that it is still a force for freedom, not just self-preservation. According to one retired official quoted by Spies, New York State could sanction or remove board members, disband the entire board, or revoke the NRA’s corporate charter altogether. It could also lose its federal tax-exempt status.
Rehabilitating the NRA
If you care about the NRA, if you care about the Second Amendment, this is the time for adult supervision. There is no pain-free option. Can we save the NRA? I hope so. We’ll need to be more actively, anxiously engaged than ever before. Call and write your directors (listed in the NRA magazines) and demand they excise the cancer.
If we can’t save the NRA, it will be a terrible blow to the civic impact of gun owners in a critical election year. It may take us another generation to dig out from the rubble.
The Gun Lobby is You
But we had God-given Constitutional rights before the NRA existed and we’ll have them after the NRA ceases to exist. We must not despair of vindicating our right to keep and bear arms just because fallen men couldn’t keep their paws out of the cookie jar.
Win or lose, one lesson we should take away is that we should never again keep all our eggs in one basket. Join a state-level grassroots gun rights network that is not subject to suffocation by New York state regulators. You can find one at Jeff Knox’s Firearms Coalition website (www.FirearmsCoalition.org).
Consider joining Gun Owners of America (https://gunowners.org/), described by Ron Paul as “the only no-compromise gun lobby in Washington.” Another uncompromising gun rights organization, although not so potent in Congress, is Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership (jpfo.org).
The death or incapacitation of the NRA will mean that you can’t outsource your civic duty to Chris Cox anymore. If you care about your rights, you’re going to have to accept feeling like a pest. If your elected representatives or their staff roll their eyes when you follow up and hold their feet to the fire, oh well.
I hope we’re not coming to the end of an era of highly effective, efficient legislative advocacy but if we are, you’re still a citizen. You still have a Constitutionally protected right to petition for the redress of grievances, and your right to keep and bear arms – by the supreme law of the land – shall not be infringed.