Can Disgruntled High-Dollar Donors Force A Reckoning At The NRA?

INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA, UNITED STATES - 2019/04/27: A photo of Chief Executive and Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre, chief lobbyist and principal political strategist for the Institute for Legislative Action Chris Cox and former NRA president Oliver North, is displayed on the Indiana Convention Center during the third day of the National Rifle Association convention. (Photo by Jeremy Hogan/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA, UNITED STATES - 2019/04/27: A photo of Chief Executive and Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre, chief lobbyist and principal political strategist for the Institute for Legislative Action Ch... INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA, UNITED STATES - 2019/04/27: A photo of Chief Executive and Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre, chief lobbyist and principal political strategist for the Institute for Legislative Action Chris Cox and former NRA president Oliver North, is displayed on the Indiana Convention Center during the third day of the National Rifle Association convention. (Photo by Jeremy Hogan/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images) MORE LESS

It was 2015. The National Rifle Association was arguably at a high point, basking in a series of legislative victories while recording a whopping $165.7 million in revenue from memberships.

The organization decided to hold its annual meeting that year in Nashville.

Locals David Dell’Aquila and his wife Marita Ventura – both passionate firearms supporters – decided to get involved.

They were coming to Nashville, and I said there’s no excuse for us not to go to one in our backyard,” he said, telling TPM it was his first annual meeting since first becoming a lifetime member in the 1990s. 

After the convention, Dell’Aquila picked up a copy of the NRA-published American Hunter magazine and found an ad for the group’s planned giving – a way for people to plan for their assets to be given to the gun group after they die.

“And so I called up the NRA,” he recalled and arranged to leave a substantial sum to the group upon his death.

Now, fed up with allegations of corruption at the top of the country’s gun lobby, Dell’Aquila said that he has pulled the seven-figure sum he had intended to leave to the NRA from his will, until Wayne LaPierre steps down from his role as NRA executive vice president.

Dell’Aquila claims to be leading a movement of similarly disgruntled rich donors who had agreed to bequeath their wealth unto the NRA but are now trying to use their leverage to force internal changes within the organization. Dell’Aquila recently set up a website to pressure the NRA chief to resign, called “Retire LaPierre,” including a petition for LaPierre’s resignation in a bid to channel grassroots support. 

“While we don’t know if these allegations are true, that is irrelevant at this point and is not our primary goal,” the site reads. “Fundamentally, the accountability stops with Wayne LaPierre and the NRA needs to remove those at the center of these issues to ensure a strong NRA prior to the 2020 elections.”

Having given $100,000 to the NRA since 2015, Dell’Aquila described to TPM how he scaled the organization from within. The “seven figures” he bequeathed to the gun group earned him the status of Charlton Heston Ambassador Member. That’s the top rung of the NRA’s “Ring of Freedom Heritage Society,” available to those who have committed more than $1 million to the organization after their demise. Perks include a “commemorative bronze figurine of Charlton Heston,” as well as a “lapel pin representing appropriate giving level.”

Heston died after a battle with Alzheimer’s at his Beverly Hills home in 2008.

Dell’Aquila – who once bragged to the Baltimore Sun about his ability to eat two 48-ounce steaks in one sitting – and Ventura began attending Charlton Heston-branded events, marketed as exclusive for top-dollar donors.

Whether it’s ILA (Institute for Legislative Action) luncheons, the Hunter’s leadership forum, the Women’s Leadership Forum – my wife and I skyrocketed,” Dell’Aquila told TPM.  

Dell’Aquila described the NRA’s inner workings as “kind of like an old network of friends.”

“Depending on who you are and who you know, and how much money you’re willing to give, you could work up and get to a higher caste,” he said.

In a statement to TPM, the NRA pushed back at Dell’Aquila.

“We are disappointed whenever donors choose to suspend their support of the NRA, but we hope to win them back,” NRA President Carolyn Meadows said in a statement to TPM. “People may resist change, but they embrace progress. We’re experiencing that right now at the NRA. There’s an energy within the NRA that is hard to describe – and we continue to earn the support of millions of loyal members.”

As the New York Times first reported last week, Dell’Aquila is trying to marshal a group of top dollar donors, disillusioned with the gun group’s very public descent into chaos.  Since the New York Times article was published, Dell’Aquila said, more donors have agreed to renege on posthumously posting assets to the NRA.

It is difficult to independently confirm how many donors have backed away from their previous commitments to the NRA. The estimated value of those pledged gifts are often self-reported, making it difficult to nail down the actual value.

The total value of pledges being withdrawn is in excess of $150 million, Dell’Aquila claims. According to his calculations, the number is very specific: $153,994,634 as of July 12. He declined to provide substantiating details, citing confidentiality. The amount of withdrawn pledges grew by some $20 million in the week since the New York Times story came out, by Dell’Aquila’s own count.

For comparison, the NRA’s last public financial statements – released in 2017 – show the group recording $380 million in expenses, with $378 million in revenue. 

A planned giving document reviewed by TPM describes the program as “Creating a Constitutionally Centered Will,” offering “Suggested Bequest Language” to those interested, as well as final destinations for the estates.

According to Brian Mittendorf, an accounting professor at Ohio State who has studied the NRA’s financials extensively, Dell’Aquila’s number amounts to “approximately one year’s worth of contributions for all the NRA organizations combined.”

“So, it would be a substantial amount for sure, but the question is how immediately that amount is expected to come in,” he added, noting that while the group had provisioned around $5 million in pledges receivable – from irrevocable trusts – the extent to which the NRA relies on revocable giving – as is found in wills – remains unclear.

“It’s an aging demographic,” said Jeff Knox, a lifelong NRA member whose father led a board fight against Wayne LaPierre in the mid-1990s. Part of the group’s struggles over the past few years have come down to various attempts to market membership to younger generations, a strategy that in part birthed the recently shuttered online TV service NRATV. 

“I’m almost 60 and I still consider myself the young upstart in the organization,” he added.

The fracas driving disillusionment among NRA donors began with a behind-the-scenes battle last summer between the gun group and its longtime imagemaker – Oklahoma City-based ad firm Ackerman McQueen. The NRA sued Ackerman in April, demanding information about the pair’s financial relationship that it said Ackerman was withholding. 

Since then, the allegations of wrongdoing appear to have spiraled out of both the NRA’s and Ackerman’s control. Documents posted anonymously online in May showed letters from Ackerman to LaPierre demanding an explanation for alleged personal charges that were routed through the ad firm and billed back to the NRA. 

Dell’Aquila frames his effort as a bid to save the NRA from itself. 

“Optics is killing us from within and from the public and it just needs to stop,” he said. “And so I don’t understand why Wayne does not resign.”

This lawsuit would never have happened if he had followed basic auditing and accounting policies,” he said. ”It only occurs now because of a lack of leadership.”

He’s been joined by other, mounting voices in the movement, some of whom were enraged by last month’s firing of Chris Cox, a longtime NRA lobbyist who commanded respect within the organization and who was seen as a potential successor to LaPierre. 

The gun blogosphere has begun to erupt against the NRA generally, and LaPierre specifically. 

The Truth About Guns, an influential pro-firearm ownership website, published an opinion piece on Monday titled “It’s Time To Defund The NRA.” 

The op-ed blames the NRA’s crisis on “mismanagement, cronyism, and self-dealing by its leadership.”

“One man sits at the center of this swirling maelstrom. One has led the organization to this precarious position. And one man can start the process of leading it out: Wayne LaPierre,” the piece reads, before demanding that members start a campaign of “starving [the NRA] of cash.”

“The only way remaining to exert any meaningful influence and communicate the desire to see wholesale changes in how the NRA is run and functions is to starve it of the lifeblood that keeps the current leadership in place — the members’ hard-earned money,” the piece concludes. 

Another gun website – PA gun blog – praised Dell’Aquila, calling Cox’s firing “a bridge too far.” 

Dell’Aquila told TPM that “the stuff in the news is what got me to start actively working from the inside, and so I would say the last twelve months I’ve been actively trying to work within the leadership.”

Dell’Aquila said that he had been rebuffed in his inquiries about the “allegations,” but that it wasn’t until the this year’s annual convention in Indianapolis – where LaPierre fought off a takeover attempt by former NRA President Oliver North – that he decided to go public.

“I found out that it’s impossible to work with the leadership, they’re not gonna change,” Dell’Aquila said, declining to specify what specifically occurred in Indianapolis which changed his mind. 

Others, like Knox, have long been suspicious and critical of self-dealing at the organization. But the depth of recent allegations have provoked puzzlement at how it can continue. 

Honestly, I cannot find a rational explanation,” Knox told TPM. “The NRA is not the gun lobby – we are the gun lobby.”

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