The disclosure of the below-market interest rate granted to Hammer, an NRA board member who is one of the nation’s leading gun lobbyists, comes as the organization is being battered by reports of economic benefits flowing to its top leadership. Those reports have fueled internal warfare at the nation’s most powerful gun lobby as well as investigations by the Democratic attorneys general of the District and New York.
Revelations that chief executive Wayne LaPierre spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on luxury menswear and travel, and that the NRA considered buying him a multimillion-dollar estate, have spurred calls for his resignation. NRA officials, including Hammer and LaPierre’s representatives, have staunchly defended their stewardship of NRA funds.
Nonprofits are not prohibited from making loans, but five lawyers who examined the Florida affiliate’s tax filings at The Washington Post’s request said the terms of Hammer’s loan may violate Internal Revenue Service guidelines on “excess benefit transactions.”
“The agency’s concern about loans made by nonprofits to board members and others is whether they are fair, whether they further the mission of the organization or instead appear to be used for the personal benefit of organization executives,” said Douglas Varley, a Washington lawyer who advises nonprofits on executive compensation and other matters.
Hammer said the loans, which were first reported publicly by the Tallahassee Democrat news outlet, come from her retirement account, not the nonprofit. “It’s my money,” she said. “People borrow from their retirement accounts all the time.”
Robert Hollar, the Tallahassee accountant who has prepared the group’s filings since 2013, declined to answer questions but said, “In my opinion they are prepared properly.”
Several of the lawyers interviewed by The Post said the affiliate’s tax filings appear to be inconsistent with Hammer’s explanation. A line about pension plan accruals and contributions was left blank, they noted. The filings, they said, describe the arrangement as “a loan from the organization” and list the interest paid by Hammer as revenue to Unified Sportsmen of Florida — not to a retirement plan.
“They do not seem to be coming from any kind of retirement account that is ‘hers,’ but rather out of the organization’s own funds,” Robert Atkinson, a Florida State University law professor who has taught taxation of nonprofits, said in an email. “Both the procedure for making the loans and the method of reporting them look slipshod at best, and, in all fairness, suspicious.”
Hammer declined to offer any documentation supporting her claim that she borrowed against a retirement plan. She is the nonprofit’s lone employee.
Three officers and three directors of the Unified Sportsmen of Florida either did not respond to questions about the loan or declined to comment. The board of directors approved the loans, according to the tax filing.
The NRA declined to comment beyond a statement it had previously released about Hammer: “It suffices to say, Ms. Hammer is a tireless supporter of the NRA’s fight to protect the Second Amendment. Her advocacy efforts greatly benefit the NRA in Florida, and the ripple effects of her work favorably impact the political landscape across the nation.”
Hammer, 80, is credited with spearheading a number of groundbreaking Florida laws protecting the rights of gun owners, including the 1987 law allowing concealed weapons to be carried statewide and the “stand your ground” law in 2005 that permits deadly force to counter a perceived violent threat. In December 1995, she became the first female president of the NRA, a post she held until 1998. Unified Sportsmen of Florida was founded in 1976, and Hammer joined as its leader two years later.
Tax records show Unified Sportsmen of Florida initially loaned Hammer $50,210 in March 1995 at an interest rate of 2 percent to “purchase residence.” At that time, Hammer was serving as first vice president of the NRA, in line to become the next president. In the 2011 filing, when the loan was about 75 percent paid off, it rolled over into a new, $49,148 loan for “purchase of property.” And in the 2016 tax filing, when that loan was about 40 percent paid off, it rolled over into a new, $200,000 loan to “refinance and purchase property.” The interest rate on the two more recent loans is not detailed in the filings.
Hammer owes $194,154, according to the latest tax filing, in 2017.
The IRS classifies Unified Sportsmen of Florida as a tax-exempt organization that “must be operated exclusively to promote social welfare” and “may not inure to the benefit of any private shareholder or individual.” The IRS can impose tax penalties if officials receive monetary benefits from exempt organizations that are out of line with fair-market value. The agency can also direct officials to return the benefits.
Miami tax attorney Hank Raattama said an interest rate as low as 2 percent means Hammer was “underpaying what she would owe if she went to a local bank.” He called the loans “indicative of an attitude in which they are dealing with the assets of a tax-exempt organization in a way that is not arm’s length and in a way that favors insiders.”
When pressed about the interest rate, Hammer referred to regulations for the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, which sets minimum standards for most private retirement plans. The regulations do not set specific interest rates but say they must be “reasonable.”
Washington attorney Carol McClarnon said the regulations are interpreted to mean the rate should be similar to what banks are offering under similar circumstances. The average mortgage rate when the loan began, in March 1995, was over 8 percent, according to Freddie Mac.
Two legal experts said nonprofits sometimes grant low-interest loans to workers in limited circumstances, such as when a newly hired employee is relocating to a high-cost metropolitan area.
Frances Hill, a University of Miami law professor who teaches about tax policy, noted that the NRA affiliate reported a $28,389 shortfall in the same year that tax filings show it extended the $200,000 loan. The group narrowly broke even in the 2011 filing and reported shortfalls in the 2007 and 2008 filings.
“How in heaven’s name can a tax-exempt organization flipping in and out of default decide that a $200,000 loan for housing would be just peachy, especially since it appears she never paid off the previous loans?” Hill asked.
Hammer is among 18 members of the unpaid, 76-member NRA board who have collected money from the group during the past three years, according to tax filings, state charitable reports and NRA correspondence reviewed by The Post. At a time when NRA spending is under scrutiny, tax experts say the payments to board members create potential conflicts of interest that could cloud the board’s independent monitoring of the organization’s finances.
NRA tax filings show $1.6 million paid to Hammer between 2005 and 2017. Other NRA records show the money was for consulting. Hammer has defended the payments to board members as “legitimate.”
Separately, Hammer earns $110,000 annually as executive director of the Unified Sportsmen of Florida, which describes its mission as to “provide protection, information and education concerning Second Amendment rights of the U.S. Constitution and gun safety.” Her salary has not changed since 2004, the year of the oldest tax filing publicly available, except for small modifications in 2005 and 2006.
Since 2010, the NRA has given $216,000 every year to the state group to cover Hammer’s salary and office expenses, according to NRA audit committee records recently made public by an investigation of Hammer by the Florida Office of Legislative Services. Unified Sportsmen of Florida spent about $220,000 in 2017, its latest tax filing shows.
The investigation was triggered by complaints from two Democratic state legislators who accused Hammer of violating rules requiring Florida lobbyists to disclose their compensation. The Office of Legislative Services concluded that the NRA affiliate acts as a lobbying firm and directed Hammer to file quarterly reports of the money the affiliate receives from the NRA.
Legal experts interviewed by The Post also expressed concern about the security for the loans to Hammer. Loans from retirement funds are typically secured by the balance in the retirement account, they said. Hammer’s loans are secured by her “employment agreement,” tax filings say.
“If she quits working, what happens to the loan and the repayment obligations?” asked Atkinson, the professor at Florida State University.
Because the loans were described as being for property purchases, The Post reviewed public records in the Tallahassee area where Hammer lives. The records show a number of purchases by Hammer and a trust in her name.
In 2011, she paid $142,000 for a 1,600-square-foot home in Tallahassee where a daughter and son-in-law appear to live, according to voter registration and other records.
Four years later, the three of them paid $150,000 for a 1,700-square-foot home, a property that was transferred to Hammer and her granddaughter the following year for $75,000, property records show. Both of the homes were built decades ago.
In 2017, her trust bought a 1,500-square-foot condo for $149,000. She owns another Tallahassee property through a trust and co-owns one more home.
Hammer declined to discuss the real estate purchases.
On the NRA board, Hammer has been one of the fiercest defenders of the organization and of LaPierre’s leadership. When three board members who had called for an audit resigned in protest last month, Hammer quipped, “Don’t let the door hit you in the back on your way out.”
In a recent blog post, she touted LaPierre’s direct contact with President Trump about proposals to expand background checks on gun buyers after the mass shootings in Dayton, Ohio, and in El Paso. She also lashed out at an NRA donor who has called for LaPierre’s resignation.
“Nobody else can do what NRA does,” she wrote. “Does anybody really think any of the dissidents or their leaders get a call from the President of the United States?” She added: “Does anybody believe they even have a clue what to do on Capitol Hill? Absolutely not, they can’t even hold Wayne LaPierre’s coat.”
Julie Tate and Alice Crites contributed to this report.