The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

NRA may have violated tax laws with 2015 trip to Russia, according to report by Senate Democrats

The National Rifle Association may have violated tax laws when top officials traveled to Russia in 2015, a trip that helped provide well-connected Russians with access to U.S. political figures, Senate Democrats said in a new report.

A long-running inquiry led by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), a member of the Finance Committee, found that senior NRA officials pursued personal business interests on the trip and then helped a senior Russian government official and a Russian gun rights activist meet GOP presidential candidates and other political figures during the 2016 campaign.

“During the 2016 election, Russian nationals effectively used the promise of lucrative personal business opportunities to capture the NRA and gain access to the American political system,” Wyden said as he released findings of an 18-month investigation by the Finance Committee minority staff into the NRA’s relationship with Russia.

The NRA rejected the findings, which come as the organization is beset by infighting and allegations that top officials gained financially from their ties to the tax-exempt gun rights group.

“This report promotes a politically motivated and contrived narrative,” said William A. Brewer III, counsel to the NRA. “This report goes to great lengths to try to involve the NRA in activities of private individuals and create the false impression that the NRA did not act appropriately. Nothing could be further from the truth.”

The report was dismissed by the Republican chair of the Finance Committee, Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), who labeled it “a political document directed at an organization well-known in U.S. politics to be despised by Democrats,” adding that the GOP majority “finds no wrongdoing by the NRA.”

In December 2015, top NRA officials, including the organization’s incoming president, Pete Brownell, and a past president, David Keene, traveled to Moscow. The group met with Maria Butina, who later pleaded guilty of working as an unregistered Russian agent.

The NRA has said that the trip to Moscow was not officially approved by the tax-exempt organization.

“Certain NRA members made the trip of their own accord,” said NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam. “NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre was opposed to it and, at his directive, no NRA staff members or employees attended.”

In a statement, a spokesman for Brownell, who left the NRA board in May, said that the group approved the trip and that he obtained guidance from the U.S. government before going.

“He went to support the NRA as the incoming president and would not have gone if it was not an NRA trip,” Brownell spokesman Ryan Repp said. “Pete received absolutely no business for his company as a result of this trip. He has fully cooperated with all inquiries into this matter and will continue to do so.”

In his report, Wyden cites official NRA documents and internal communications to buttress his claim that it was an official NRA trip. The report cites instances in which NRA officials met with officials from the Kremlin. The report also says that Brownell explored business opportunities with Russian arms manufacturers.

“This was an official trip undertaken so NRA insiders could get rich — a clear violation of the principle that tax-exempt resources should not be used for personal benefit,” Wyden said.

The Democrats’ report also suggests NRA insiders may have violated U.S. sanctions against Russia by meeting with sanctioned Russian government officials and state-linked weapons manufacturers.

In 2018, Wyden asked the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control to investigate whether some of the Russian weapons manufacturers the NRA delegation met with have evaded U.S. sanctions by abusing domestic shell companies.

Wyden called on the IRS and Treasury Department officials to examine his findings. Grassley said nothing in the Wyden report “reasonably calls into question the NRA’s tax-exempt status.”