Wednesday, January 17, 2024

NRA concocted plan to conceal luxury expenses by chief executive

At a meeting in June 2009, the treasurer of the National Rifle Association worked out a plan to conceal luxury expenses involving its chief executive, Wayne LaPierre, according to audio of the meeting obtained by The Trace and ProPublica

The recording was unknown to New York’s attorney general, who is pursuing the NRA and LaPierre over a range of alleged financial misdeeds. It shows, in real time, the NRA’s treasurer enlisting the group’s longtime public relations firm to obfuscate the extravagant costs.

Captured on tape is talk of LaPierre’s desire to avoid public disclosure of his use of private jets as well as concern about persistent spending at the Beverly Hills Hotel by a PR executive and close LaPierre adviser.

During the meeting, which took place in the Alexandria, Virginia, office of PR firm Ackerman McQueen, executives agreed that Ackerman would issue a Platinum American Express card to Tyler Schropp, the new head of the NRA’s nascent advancement division, which was responsible for bringing in high-dollar contributions from wealthy donors. Ackerman would then cover the card’s charges and bill them back to the NRA under nondescript invoices.

“It’s really the limo services and the hotels that I worry about,” William Winkler, Ackerman’s chief financial officer, said. “He’s going to need it for the hotels especially.”

The use of the Ackerman American Express card, according to a report by New York Attorney General Letitia James’ expert witness on nonprofits, skirted internal controls that existed to ensure proper disclosure and regulatory compliance and to prevent “fraud and abuse” at the nonprofit. As a result, outside of a tiny group of NRA insiders, everyone was in the dark about years of charges by Schropp — who is still the head of the nonprofit’s advancement division — for luxury accommodations, including regular sojourns to the Four Seasons and the Ritz-Carlton. The NRA, in response, said the report was “rife with inadmissible factual narratives, impermissible interpretations and inferences, and improper factual and legal conclusions.”

James’ investigation into the NRA began in 2019, after The Trace, in partnership with The New Yorker, and later with ProPublica, reported on internal accounting documents that indicated a culture of self-dealing at the gun-rights group. In 2020, James sued the NRA and LaPierre, who presided over the organization for three decades, over claims of using nonprofit resources for personal enrichment, luxury travel and bloated contracts for insiders, allegations that the parties deny. The attorney general is seeking financial restitution from the defendants and was until last week petitioning for LaPierre’s removal, which was preempted on Friday when LaPierre announced he would resign at the end of January.

The attorney general’s office was unaware of the audio until it was contacted by The Trace and ProPublica and did not respond to a request for comment.

Ackerman McQueen and Winkler declined to comment. None of the other individuals mentioned in this story responded to requests for comment. The gun-rights group’s attorney, William A. Brewer III, said in an email: “The tape has not been authenticated by the NRA but, if real, we are shocked by its content. The suggested contents would confirm what the NRA has said all along: there were certain ‘insiders’ and vendors who took advantage of the Association. If true, it is an example of a shadowy business arrangement — one that was not brought to the attention of the NRA board.”

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