The National Rifle Association was already reeling from leadership shakeups and allegations of financial mismanagement when it dropped another bombshell.
The NRA accused Chris Cox – the man who had controlled the organization’s lobbying and political activities for more than 15 years – of trying to overthrow Chief Executive Wayne LaPierre, according to a lawsuit filed last month.
Cox denied the charge to The New York Times, but quickly resigned. His unceremonious sacking stunned NRA board members, who saw Cox as a potential successor to LaPierre, and infuriated political staffers. Some started packing up their desks, unsure of whether they would be ousted too, multiple NRA sources said.
That’s when the Washington power brokers really started to worry. Cox’s departure, after months of turmoil at the NRA, only amplified the sense that the gun-rights group might not be the political powerhouse in 2020 that it has been for decades, including notably in 2016.
When President Donald Trump convened a meeting with bipartisan lawmakers and signaled and openness to some gun control measures in the wake of a shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 dead, it was Cox who showed up at the White House the following evening.
Afterward, Cox tweeted that Trump didn’t want gun control. For his part, Trump tweeted: “Good (Great) meeting in the Oval Office tonight with the NRA!”
The reservoir of goodwill toward Cox ran deep on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.
“Every Republican senator who matters has Chris’ cell phone number,” one GOP operative who worked closely with Cox on the political side told CNN. “And vice versa.”
The operative recounted one meeting between Cox and a senator, ostensibly about a policy issue, that instead was focused primarily on the senator’s favorite hunting grounds in his home state. Cox knew them all in advance – and had been to them himself.
Cox and his team held weekly calls with Republican committees to share tips about ongoing campaigns – calls that increased in frequency in the lead-up to key primaries and Election Day, according to former officials.
“Senators didn’t call Wayne,” the GOP operative said of LaPierre. “They called Chris.”
That’s partly because it was Cox’s job to maintain those contacts, while LaPierre oversaw the organization. Cox has moved on to launch his own Washington consulting firm. But unease over his departure – and LaPierre’s efforts to consolidate power – is fueling uncertainty about the direction of the organization overall.
An alleged coup-gone-wrong
The NRA’s dysfunction exploded into a public spectacle at the group’s annual meeting April in Indianapolis. That’s where LaPierre accused then-NRA President Oliver North of trying to extort him.
North had allegedly demanded that LaPierre step down as CEO and continue to support North as NRA president – “or be smeared,” according to LaPierre’s letter to the board and court filings.
North had one more demand: Drop a pending lawsuit against Ackerman McQueen.
Weeks earlier, the NRA had sued Ackerman, its longtime advertising partner, claiming the firm was refusing to hand over documentation of its expenses.
For nearly 40 years, Ackerman had crafted the NRA’s marketing strategy, planned and placed media, “including advertising during election cycles,” and operated the controversial NRATV, according to court filings. Over the years, Ackerman hired personnel to work on the NRA’s account, like NRA spokesperson Dana Loesch.
“The NRA and Ackerman have collaborated fruitfully for decades. Together, the parties crafted iconic, impactful Second Amendment messaging that featured Charlton Heston … and other important constitutional rights advocates,” the NRA wrote in its lawsuit. “However, the NRA’s patience has run out.”
Ackerman was also paying North.
Instead of acquiescing to North’s demands, LaPierre told the board he was the victim of an attempted coup. LaPierre kept his perch as CEO. North was effectively ousted as president.
“The NRA does not take kindly to threats – and neither did LaPierre,” the NRA wrote in a court filing.
North, in a court filing, denied that he was involved in a plot to overthrow LaPierre.
Embarrassing revelations started spilling out in court filings and in a cache of letters and invoices anonymously posted online and substantiated by sources familiar with them.
On top of the $40 million annually that the NRA was allegedly shelling out to Ackerman (a sum Ackerman disputes), other questionable expenses came to light.
“We realized during these discussions that we need to address your wardrobe you required us to provide, specifically, purchases at the Zegna store in Beverly Hills, CA,” one of the letters from Ackerman McQueen to LaPierre that was posted online stated. It cited nearly $275,000 in purchases from the high-end Italian clothier.
Members were paying attention.
“I’m not sure why Wayne needs somebody to buy his clothes for him, he makes a very nice salary,” said Dan Zimmerman, managing editor of The Truth About Guns website and a member of the NRA.
LaPierre earned more than $1.4 million from the NRA and related organizations in 2017, according to the non-profit’s latest filing with the IRS.
In a new court filing Thursday, North said he wanted outside professionals look into potential financial mismanagement within the NRA. Instead, LaPierre retaliated by having North removed from his role as president and board member, North alleges in the filing.
“LaPierre – demonstrating his total dictatorial control over the NRA … stopped all of North’s inquiries and prevented others at the NRA from looking into the concerns that North raised,” according to the court filing from North’s legal team.
The NRA defended LaPierre’s spending in court filings, noting that the clothing purchases were for filming commercials and other business-related activities.
“Of course, AMc should not have incurred (let alone sought reimbursement for) any expenses which it believed inappropriate,” the NRA shot back.
Letters from Ackerman McQueen also pointed to more than $240,000 LaPierre had billed to the advertising agency for trips to destinations including Italy, Hungary and the Bahamas. A letter also questioned why LaPierre had required Ackerman McQueen to pick up a nearly $14,000 tab to rent an apartment for a summer intern.