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NRA sidelines its top lobbyist, Chris Cox, in latest sign of internal turmoil

Chris Cox, top lobbyist for the NRA, speaks at the group’s annual meeting in Indianapolis on April 26.
Chris Cox, top lobbyist for the NRA, speaks at the group’s annual meeting in Indianapolis on April 26. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)
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The National Rifle Association has sidelined its top lobbyist, Chris Cox, after accusing him in court documents of participating in what it called a failed extortion scheme to rid the organization of its top executive.

Cox, the NRA’s second-in-command and leader of its powerful political arm, was placed on administrative leave after the organization filed a lawsuit Wednesday in New York against former NRA president Oliver North, who resigned in April after accusing the NRA of exorbitant spending.

Chief executive Wayne LaPierre has accused North of attempting to extort the group. In its new suit, the NRA accused Cox of participating in a “conspiracy” with North.

NRA officials on Thursday confirmed Cox has been suspended, declining to comment further.

Cox could not be reached for comment. In a statement to the New York Times, which first reported his suspension, Cox called the allegations “offensive and patently false. For 24 years I have been a loyal and effective leader in this organization.”

The abrupt ouster of Cox, a prominent figure in Washington, is the latest sign of disarray and turmoil at the organization, which has been roiled by accusations of misspending. The bitter infighting also comes as President Trump — who was the beneficiary of a record-setting $30 million boost from the NRA in 2016 — launches his reelection campaign.

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Cox is one of the organization’s highest-profile leaders, featured on enormous banners at the group’s annual convention and in videos put out by the NRA, where he has controlled a $33 million budget of the group’s political arm.

His suspension comes just weeks before a special legislative session on gun control in Virginia called by Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, in response to the recent mass shooting in Virginia Beach.

Cox, who has led the political and lobbying arm of the NRA since 2002, received about $1.1 million in compensation in 2017, according to the NRA’s most recent tax filing. He is among three NRA executives whose contracts provide for severance payments amounting to their annual salaries for one to four more years “in the event of termination without cause or on the basis of specified adverse actions by the NRA,” according to the group’s filing with charity regulators in Massachusetts.

The NRA also placed one of Cox’s top deputies, Scott Christman, on administrative leave, officials said. Christman could not be reached for comment.

The internal power struggle that has riven the NRA burst into public view in April, when LaPierre told the board of directors that North was threatening the release of “a devastating account of our financial status” if the NRA chief did not step down. LaPierre accused North of working in concert with the group’s estranged public relations firm, Ackerman McQueen.

An attorney for North has declined to comment. But in a letter as he left his post as president, North warned that the organization’s finances were in “clear crisis.”

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In its lawsuit against North, the NRA claims that North said he could work with Ackerman’s co-founder to negotiate an “excellent retirement” for LaPierre if he cooperated. It also implicated another board member, former Oklahoma congressman Dan Boren (D), in the alleged scheme. Boren did not return a request for comment.

The lawsuit claims that emails and text messages “demonstrate that another errant NRA fiduciary, Chris Cox — once thought by some to be a likely successor for Mr. LaPierre — participated in the Ackerman/North/Boren conspiracy.”

The text messages included in the court filing appear to show Cox and another person talking about an “ultimatum,” but the broader context is unclear.

The lawsuit seeks to block North from having the NRA pay his legal fees associated with numerous suits involving the NRA and Ackerman, as well as for a Senate inquiry.

“Simply put, the NRA exists to fight for the Second Amendment,” the organization wrote in the lawsuit, “not pay other people’s bills.”

Carol D. Leonnig, Tom Hamburger and Alice Crites contributed to this report.