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Analysis: A week in the political life of the NRA

 

NRA

(AP Photo/Steve Ueckert)

In the past week, the National Rifle Association has punctured the political airwaves again and again for their connection to one scandal after the next.

The week started with their connection to alleged Kremlin agent Mariia Butina who was arrested for acting as an unregistered agent of the Russian government. This revelation was closely followed by a complaint by the Campaign Legal Center (CLC) alleging that they created a shell company to coordinate with Republican Senate candidates.

The week was rounded out with the announcement that nonprofits like the NRA will no longer be required to disclose donor information to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and the discovery of some slightly strange campaign contribution habits of theirs. Lastly, Florida NRA lobbyist Marion Hammer filed an inflammatory lawsuit for the ‘hate and vitriol’ directed at her by some NRA critics, such as being called a “redneck old geezer,” amongst other names.

We delve into each one of these NRA controversies for their connection to money in politics and transparency.

On Monday last week, Federal authorities charged Mariia Butina, a Russian citizen living in Washington, D.C. with conspiracy to act as an illegal agent of the Russian government, including for attempting to establish “back-channel” relations with American officials on behalf of the Kremlin, the Justice Department said.

Butina had attended various NRA events over the past few years and was allegedly part of a scheme to funnel Russian money through the NRA to the Trump campaign. Some of this money was perhaps routed through NRA entities that were not required to disclose their funding sources, POLITICO reported. Butina’s lawyer denied this allegation on Monday last week, and the NRA has not commented on this matter so far.

Butina even had a project proposal outlined in a 2015 email where she was requesting $125,000 from an American political operative connected to the NRA for her to participate in “all upcoming major conferences” of the Republican party. The court documents appear to make multiple references to the NRA in many parts of the affidavit.

On the same day Butina was arrested last week, the nonpartisan public-interest watchdog Campaign Legal Center (CLC) submitted a 25-page complaint with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) alleging that the NRA used a consulting firm, OnMessage, to evade federal rules prohibiting coordination between congressional candidates and outside spending groups like the NRA.

The NRA allegedly violated federal law by using a common vendor to illegally coordinate with four Republican Senate candidates, Tom Cotton, Cory Gardner, Thom Tillis and Ron Johnson, according to the complaint.The complaint alleges that Republican consulting firm OnMessage who the NRA hired created a shell corporation called Starboard which was located at the same address, using the same staff and with essentially the same business model in order to share and use strategic information between the NRA and the Senate candidacies of the four Republican Senate candidates during the 2014 and 2016 election cycles.

CLC claims that Starboard and OnMessage are effectively the same organization and that the NRA’s campaign and lobbying arms worked with this mysterious shell company, Starboard, to access relevant and electorally-sensitive information in order to strategically benefit the four GOP Senate campaigns.

Also, last week came some new revelations regarding the NRA’s political spending from the FEC’s second quarter campaign finance filings. Apparently, the NRA PAC made a series of $4,950 contributions to various Republican Congressional and Senatorial candidates in June, according to their FEC filing. The NRA contributed the slightly unusual amount of $4,950 specifically, which is $50 less than the maximum contribution limit of $5,000 because reporters typically only looking for maximum contributions wouldn’t find these contributions, nonprofit news organization ProPublica reported.

In other news the Treasury Department, which announced a rule change late Monday that some nonprofit groups will no longer have to give the IRS the names of donors who give them $5,000 or more.

Groups impacted by the move include 501(c)(4) social welfare organizations — like the NRA, the Koch-aligned Americans for Prosperity, Planned Parenthood Action Fund and 501(c)(6) trade associations like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Those organizations are commonly referred to as “dark money” groups because they are not required to publicly disclose the sources of funding that has been used to support political causes.

Critics say this new rule change will allow politically active nonprofits like the NRA to pour anonymous “dark money” into elections with even less oversight than they already face.

As OpenSecrets has reported in the past, the IRS has shown itself to be a pushover for groups that are bending the rules — whether its a group involved in a “campaign money laundering” investigation or one a group that has spent tens of millions of dollars on politics.

Under the new rules, 501(c)(3) charities will still have to identify their most generous donors to the IRS, but 501(c)(4) social welfare organizations and 501(c)(6) business associations will not. The IRS calls the move a “significant reform to protect personal information.” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said the change “will in no way limit transparency.”

The IRS acknowledged in its statement announcing the change that it had sometimes accidentally released confidential donor information. In 2013, the IRS posted unredacted tax forms revealing donors to the nonprofit Republican Governors Association Public Policy Committee, the Center for Public Integrity reported at the time.

Another unusual event related to the NRA from last week was its longtime lobbyist in Florida Marion Hammer filing lawsuits seeking more than $2 million in damages from five men she says have targeted her with “hate and vitriol” due to her Second Amendment advocacy after the Parkland massacre. She also sued a sixth man separately, 66-year-old Miami resident Brian Fitzgerald for claims of harassment, cyberstalking, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Hammer is notorious in Florida political circles for calling local lawmakers traitors to the Constitution and for making it easier for people to obtain guns by relying on her base of politically active followers to criticize politicians.  In a series of emails he began sending on February 18, Fitzgerald called Hammer a “dyspeptic old bag,” a “redneck old geezer” and said she was working to get people killed everyday by promoting NRA’s gun policies.

According to Hammer’s lawsuits, Fitzgerald and others “have transcended mere criticism and has employed threats, harassment, and personal abuse to try to humiliate and intimidate Hammer in a manner that is utterly intolerable in a civilized community.”

However, some critics like Orlando Sentinel columnist George Diaz say Hammer is now suing others for doing the same thing that she has been criticized in the past for — calling people names and trying to shame them for their actions. Diaz said Hammer’s tactics were “rich with snowflake irony” and that she refers to herself as a scared old grandmother even though she actually spends her time “firebombing legislators who aren’t in lockstep with the NRA.”

Nihal Krishan

Nihal joined CRP as a reporter in June 2018. He’s been a political reporter in Washington for the past 3 years working for various news outlets including PBS Arizona, Circa News, Inside Sources and Australian ABC News. He’s been published in the Huffington Post, The Independent, USA Today and has been a guest speaker on NPR. One of his first big national stories came from digging through CRP data in 2015 and finding the largest donor to federal campaigns in Arizona, an unknown out of state parent company — he’s gotten a thrill out of tracking money in politics since. Nihal is a TCK who grew up in South Korea, Saudi Arabia, India and Singapore. He graduated from Arizona State University’s Cronkite School of Journalism with degrees in Political Science and Journalism.

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