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NRA boosted executive pay while cutting funding for key programs, filing shows

Overall compensation for Wayne LaPierre, right, chief executive of the National Rifle Association, jumped to $2.15 million in 2018. The NRA’s chief political strategist, Chris Cox, left, departed in June. (Daniel Acker/Bloomberg News)

Compensation for top officials at the National Rifle Association surged by 41 percent last year, according to a new tax filing, as the nation’s largest pro-gun organization sharply reduced spending on programs central to its mission.

The jump from 2017 to 2018 for the NRA’s officers, directors and highly paid employees included a 57 percent increase for chief executive Wayne LaPierre that boosted his overall compensation to $2.15 million.

The filing also shows perks for top officials that are typically associated with the corporate world, including charter and first-class travel with companions as well as dues for health or social clubs. Those costs were not detailed, though the NRA filing says housing expenses were provided for five people.

During that same period, NRA spending plunged 22 percent for education and training, 61 percent for hunter services and 51 percent for field services, which includes organizing volunteers, fundraising for shooting sports and promoting the NRA at gun shows and other events, according to a previously released audit.

NRA officials said the raises resulted from a periodic analysis by a committee of board members. In response to questions about the program cuts, spokesman Andrew Arulanandam said the NRA “eliminated costly advertising” in a number of program areas.

“Priority number one is investing in the projects and services that best serve our members and protect their Second Amendment freedoms,” Arulanandam said.

The pay hikes, coupled with program cuts, feed into a line of attack coming from some board members and firearms enthusiasts: that NRA leaders are putting their own financial interest above those of dues-paying members.

“Money flowing away from programs and into executives’ pockets is causing many longtime members to join the ranks of American gun owners who have lost faith in the NRA, especially its leadership,” said Rob Pincus, a firearms instructor and NRA lifetime member who is leading a petition drive to overhaul the group’s board.

According to the tax filing, legal fees more than tripled in 2018, to more than $25 million. For the first time, the tax filing lists the Texas law firm of William Brewer III as one of its most highly compensated contractors, receiving $13.8 million. Brewer has become one of LaPierre’s most trusted advisers despite his lack of experience in Second Amendment litigation. NRA officials stand by Brewer.

“We make no apologies for doubling down on the investment required to confront our enemies and unprecedented attacks on our members in 2018,” Arulanandam said.

Just how bad are things at the National Rifle Association?

The new tax filing helps fill in the financial picture of the NRA at the end of a tumultuous year for the gun lobby.

The drama began at the annual convention in April, when board president Oliver North was ousted after accusing LaPierre of overspending on legal fees. That clash was followed by leaks showing LaPierre spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on clothing and luxury travel. A court battle escalated between the NRA and its longtime public relations agency, Ackerman McQueen, while the Democratic attorneys general of New York and Washington, D.C. launched investigations into the tax-exempt group’s spending.

NRA officials have disputed North’s claims and said the clothes and travel were necessary for media appearances and fundraising. Eight of the 76 members of the board have resigned since the spring, some in protest of LaPierre’s leadership, while others have rallied behind the longtime chief executive as a powerful spokesman for gun rights.

To address concerns, LaPierre summoned members of the “Golden Ring of Freedom” — donors who have given at least $1 million — to huddle at the Virginia headquarters last month, according to attendees.

“The meeting was scheduled so he could explain to us what was really going on — the truth,” said Florida real estate developer John Rumpel, who said he has given about $2.8 million to the NRA. “I left without feeling suspicious about anything.”

More than two dozen of the donors — easily spotted at conventions in their custom-made gold jackets — were told that the NRA had conducted a line-by-line review of the budget and would emerge stronger than ever from the lawsuits and investigations, attendees said. LaPierre also disputed reports that he and his wife wanted the NRA to buy them a $6 million home in a gated golf community because of security concerns, saying that the real estate deal was Ackerman McQueen’s idea.

Ackerman McQueen has said it was alarmed when LaPierre sought the agency’s assistance with the real estate transaction.

NRA officials declined to discuss the Oct. 15 gathering with its top donors, which has not been previously reported.

“Mr. LaPierre meets regularly with NRA donors, grass-roots supporters and other stakeholders,” Arulanandam said. “As he has done for years, he confronts false allegations about the NRA head-on, and speaks about our mission in the 2020 election cycle.”

Donors said LaPierre told them a harrowing story about a false 911 call that sent the police to his Virginia home in the middle of the night in 2013. He was ordered to come out with his hands up, Rumpel said.

“I’ve offered him any and all of the five homes I own and my plane to move him around,” he said. “He has to travel around incognito.”

Another major donor who attended the meeting, Pat Hogan, chief executive of an Illinois-based auction house for antique firearms, also said he was worried about LaPierre’s safety. “The amount of abuse that Wayne takes — I would suggest he’s not paid enough, even with that increase,” he said.

But Hogan added that the NRA had turned over too much money and control to Ackerman McQueen, and that he regretted the departure in June of this year of the NRA’s chief political strategist, Chris Cox. The NRA has accused Cox in a lawsuit of being part of a “conspiracy” with North, which Cox has denied.

In 2018, Cox was among several top executives who received double-digit-percent increases in pay, according to the filing. He received nearly $1.4 million in compensation from the NRA and related entities, a 17 percent hike from the previous year. Twelve top officials received six-figure compensation packages, including two who left the NRA in 2016. Wilson Phillips, who served as treasurer through mid-September 2018, got $948,769 in compensation that year, up 34 percent.

Neither Cox nor Phillips responded to requests for comment.

According to the tax filings, charter travel was used “on occasions when travel logistics or security concerns precluded other available options.” LaPierre’s travel has come under scrutiny following revelations that about $250,000 was spent on his trips to locations such as Italy, Budapest and the Bahamas in recent years.

Members of the NRA’s board are not paid for overseeing the organization’s finances. But North, then the board’s president, received $1.38 million from Ackerman McQueen in 2018. Under that arrangement — the details of which the NRA has claimed were kept secret from the board — North appeared on NRATV, a platform that espoused gun rights.

North has said LaPierre authorized the contract and declined through his attorney to comment on the tax filing that showed the pay increases. Experts on nonprofit organizations say that board members who receive money from the one they oversee or its vendors can face conflicts of interest. The tax filings show another 11 board members were paid a total of more than $617,000 from the NRA, which has defended such payments as going toward services and membership recruitment.

In a year in which LaPierre weathered calls for his resignation, his base salary rose from $1.2 million in 2017 to $1.3 million in 2018; his bonus tripled to $455,000; and “other reportable compensation” climbed from about $45,000 to more than $427,000, the filing shows. La­Pierre also received an additional $73,793 in “retirement and other deferred compensation” and “nontaxable benefits” from the NRA and related entities.

NRA officials said LaPierre’s contributions are instrumental to the organization’s success.

Carol D. Leonnig and Julie Tate contributed to this report.