The National Rifle Association shook up its legal team Thursday and severed ties with its longtime outside counsel, intensifying a civil war that has upended the influential gun rights lobby.
The group ended its relationship with prominent Washington attorney Charles Cooper, while another outside counsel, Michael Volkov, resigned, according to NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam.
The moves follow an extensive NRA inquiry into efforts to oust chief executive Wayne LaPierre, according to two NRA officials involved in the deliberations who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk publicly.
The departures, which were first reported by the New York Times, come as LaPierre has been working with another NRA outside counsel, William Brewer, to fend off allegations of financial mismanagement.
In a statement, LaPierre said the lawyers who left were part a broad effort to push him out that he claims was led by the NRA’s then-president, Oliver North, in coordination with the group’s former ad agency.
“It disturbs me that the NRA’s supposed ‘friends’ — a man I personally recruited to be president of the NRA, our trusted ad agency of four decades, a couple of our attorneys, and a chief lieutenant — would engage in this obviously premeditated extortion scheme to harm our association,” LaPierre said.
Carolyn Meadows, the NRA’s current president, said in a statement there has been a “malicious smear campaign against the NRA and our leaders.”
“Kernels of ‘truth’ were stripped of context, wrapped in lies, and peddled to the media and unsuspecting audiences,” she said.
An attorney for North declined to comment. Before he was ousted in April, North had warned in two internal letters that Brewer’s firm was reaping “extraordinary” legal fees that were draining the NRA coffers, a claim NRA officials have said is inaccurate.
Cooper, who has represented the NRA for the past three decades, said in a statement that throughout that time he “adhered to the highest standards of professionalism and loyalty.”
He said his allegiance was to the nonprofit group, “not to any individual officers or directors of the organization.”
“At every turn, I have advised my client as to my best judgment of the steps that should be taken to advance and protect the best interest of the NRA itself,” Cooper added, declining to comment further.
Volkov, who was retained by the NRA in 2018, confirmed that he resigned but declined to comment further, citing “ethical restrictions.”
Alan Gottlieb, founder of the Second Amendment Foundation and chairman of the Citizens Committee for the Right To Bear Arms, said he was startled that the NRA would let Cooper go.
“This surprises me very much because Charles Cooper and his law firm have done excellent work on Second Amendment issues,” he said.
Since the spring, the NRA’s president, its chief lobbyist and seven board members have resigned amid widely circulated allegations of self-dealing and poor financial oversight by the nonprofit group under the leadership of LaPierre.
Christopher W. Cox, the NRA’s top lobbyist, quit in June after being accused by NRA officials of participating in the scheme to push out LaPierre.
The departure of Cox, who denied the accusation, left a significant hole in the NRA’s lobbying arsenal, which is now being tested by demands for universal background checks and other reforms following mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton, Ohio.
This week, two prominent board members left, the latest in an exodus that has seen seven directors step down from the 76-member board since May. Several of them had sought information about allegations of excessive spending on legal fees and personal expenses for LaPierre, only to be blocked, they said.
The claims are being investigated by Democratic attorneys general of the District and New York, which have launched separate probes into whether the NRA is complying with regulations required of its tax-exempt status.
The NRA has said that its finances are healthy and that the allegations of misspending were unfounded. In a May statement, a dozen board members said they have “full confidence in the NRA’s accounting practices and commitment to good governance.”