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NRA battles internal strife, external pressures as Oliver North steps down as president

Lt. Col. Oliver North speaks at the 2019 National Rifle Association Annual Leadership Forum. (Tannen Maury/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

National Rifle Association President Oliver North has been ousted amid internal strife and external pressure.

In a statement read at the NRA’s annual meeting in Indianapolis on Saturday, North said he would not seek a second term, citing confrontations with board members and donors over what they called exorbitant payments to a law firm, a lawsuit against the group’s longtime public relations firm and press reports about alleged financial mismanagement.

“There is a clear crisis,” North said in the letter, which was read by NRA Vice President Richard Childress. “It needs to be dealt with immediately and responsibly so the NRA can continue to focus on protecting our Second Amendment.”

The announcement by North, who said he created a committee to look into the organization’s finances, came a day after NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre issued his own letter to the NRA’s board claiming North had attempted to extort him.

According to that letter, North told LaPierre that he would send the board a letter alleging sexual harassment by a staff member, a “devastating account” of the NRA’s financial status and accusations of profligate spending on clothes and travel, unless La­Pierre resigned from his position and withdrew the NRA from a lawsuit it filed against Ackerman McQueen, the public relations firm it has used for decades.

“I believe the purpose of the letter was to humiliate me, discredit our Association, and raise appearances of impropriety that hurt our members and the Second Amendment,” LaPierre wrote in the letter, which was first reported by the Wall Street Journal. “I believe our board and devoted members will see this for what it is: a threat meant to intimidate and divide us. I choose to stand and fight, and hope to bring 5 million members with me.”

The NRA’s board will meet Monday to determine next steps. Tom King, a board member and president of the New York State Rifle and Pistol Association, said he supports LaPierre.

“I trust Wayne to make the right decisions,” he said. “He’s been doing this for 40 years.”

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The internal drama and strife comes as outside pressures mount on the organization, which is enmeshed in several lawsuits. Its financial disclosure forms show it is operating at a significant loss. And it has faced allegations of close ties to Russian leaders.

New York Attorney General Letitia James has opened an investigation into the tax-exempt status of the organization, which is chartered in New York.

“The Office of New York State Attorney General Letitia James has launched an investigation related to the National Rifle Association (NRA). As part of this investigation, the Attorney General has issued subpoenas,” James wrote in a statement, noting the office will not comment further.

James’s office sent letters Friday telling the NRA, its charitable foundation and other affiliated organizations to preserve their financial records.

William A. Brewer III, the NRA’s outside counsel, said the organization will “fully cooperate with any inquiry into its finances” and that the “NRA is prepared for this, and has full confidence in its accounting practices and commitment to good governance.”

Last week, the gun control group Giffords, which is led by former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, filed a lawsuit against the Federal Election Commission for failing to take action against the NRA for alleged campaign-finance violations.

And on Friday, a federal judge sentenced a Russian gun rights activist who pleaded guilty to conspiring with a senior Russian official to infiltrate the NRA and other groups to establish back-channel communications without registering as a foreign agent.

The organization is also feeling pressure on Capitol Hill. In February, Reps. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) and Kathleen Rice (D-N.Y.) wrote to LaPierre, stating they have “grown increasingly alarmed by the complex web of relationships” between people associated with the NRA and Russian officials.

Much of the internal strife within the organization appears to stem from a lawsuit the NRA filed against Ackerman McQueen. The firm is largely responsible for the NRA’s image, helping push the organization toward its current, divisive tack on gun ownership.

There also have been reports about divisions within the organization over NRATV — operated by Ackerman McQueen — which streams dire, dystopian programming that often has little to do with guns. One segment digitally added Ku Klux Klan hoods onto the trains in the children’s show “Thomas the Tank Engine,” in what appeared to a be a criticism of the show’s aim to diversify its characters.

In the lawsuit, the NRA alleges that Ackerman is refusing to hand over business records, including those pertaining to billing. The suit said the NRA paid the firm $40 million in 2017. The lawsuit claims Ackerman refused to abide by a services agreement, “including embarking on a campaign to ‘kill the messenger’ when the NRA sought access to documents or proposed reductions in AMc’s budget.” It claims the organization “scapegoated the NRA’s outside counsel” and refused to answer inquiries.

Some of the records the NRA seeks relate to how much North was paid by Ackerman McQueen and how much it cost to produce North’s NRATV show “American Heroes.”

LaPierre said in his letter Friday that the organization has tried to strengthen efforts to “document and verify compliance by our vendors” with purchasing and contracts.

Ackerman McQueen and the NRA did not respond to requests for comment.

The gun rights group, which spent $31 million to help elect President Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign, has been operating in the red ever since, according to financial records. During the 2017 fiscal year, the NRA reported it was more than $17 million in the red; in 2015, it was more than $33 million in the black.

In a lawsuit last year that the NRA filed against the state of New York, which discouraged insurance companies from carrying the NRA’s insurance product, the organization claimed that it would be “unable to exist” if it were unable to collect donations or safeguard its assets.

The NRA has faced challenges from corporate America, students, activists and politicians since a February 2018 shooting at a Florida high school that left 17 dead.

The NRA also been dealing with gun-control groups that outspent it in the 2018 midterm elections and have been working to counter pro-gun legislation in statehouses and in Washington.

Despite having a Supreme Court that now tips toward Second Amendment rights, a Republican president and, until November, a Republican-controlled Congress, the organization has not been able to push forward much of its agenda in Washington.

“The Trump era should be a sign of great celebration for the NRA . . . and internally it seems like they’re imploding,” said Adam Winkler, a professor at UCLA Law School. “And it comes at a time when the gun control movement is stronger than it has been.”

But Winkler, as well as current and former NRA board members, believe it would be wrong to count out the organization, which has gone through numerous ups and downs in its 147-year history.

“They’ve been in worse shape; their obituary has been written more times than anyone knows,” said Richard Feldman, a former NRA lobbyist. “Anyone who writes off the NRA is kidding themselves. They’ll come back.”

Anu Narayanswamy contributed to this report.