Informant Might Have Stood Among Gun Safety Activists

By Jenna Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 28, 2008

The day the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the D.C. gun ban, leading gun control advocates dialed into a nationwide conference call to coordinate how the movement should frame its reaction to the media.

Listening in was Mary McFate, a longtime board member of a Pennsylvania gun safety group. Although McFate had been a familiar face in gun safety circles for more than a decade, the other activists on the line were unaware that she once had a career as a corporate spy infiltrating activist groups.

Now, three gun safety groups have expelled McFate, 62, on suspicion that she was actually a longtime informant for the National Rifle Association or other gun rights organizations. McFate and the NRA are not commenting, and Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.) is demanding that the NRA address the allegations.

The gun control groups' suspicions arose after a July report in Mother Jones magazine revealing that McFate was once known as Mary Lou Sapone, whose career as a corporate spy is well documented and undisputed.

A civil court deposition includes testimony that McFate had the NRA as a client as far back as 1999 but does not detail the work she did for it. A year later, McFate was a volunteer coordinator of the gun control movement's Million Mom March.

In the 1980s, when she used her married name, Sapone, McFate worked undercover in animal rights circles, gathering intelligence for a medical supply company in Connecticut. A decade later, she was in management, serving as the handler for an operative who infiltrated an environmental group protesting a chemical spill in Louisiana.

"The more we learn about Mary McFate and her actions, the more reason for concern that she deceived gun violence victims and gun safety advocates," Lautenberg, a longtime foe of the NRA, said in a statement. "If the NRA has nothing to hide, it should come forward and answer our questions about this alleged spy. Its silence thus far has been deafening."

The assertion that McFate was a corporate spy shocked members of the tightly knit gun control movement, many of whom considered her a friend.

"This is somebody I've been with dozens and dozens of times," said Bryan Miller, executive director of Ceasefire New Jersey. "We've walked the halls of Congress together. . . . It's really hurtful."

In 2005, McFate unsuccessfully ran for a seat on the board of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, one of the nation's most influential gun safety groups. Years earlier, she was named as an unpaid board member of Ceasefire Pennsylvania, which advocates for stricter rules for handgun sales and other measures.

Her spot on that group's board allowed her to participate in two national coalitions, the Freedom States Alliance and States United to Prevent Gun Violence. McFate became the legislative director for States United and was in charge of lobbying Congress. "She seemed to feel so strongly about it," said Barbara Hohlt, executive director of States United. "She was one of us."

From her multiple perches, McFate had access to strategic discussions on which issues or legislative positions would be pushed and which lawmakers and states would be targeted when and how. She was privy to the movement's public relations strategies and its reactions to NRA activities.

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