The National Rifle Association is in a multi-million dollar legal firefight with one of its own: Ackerman McQueen, the Oklahoma-based advertising firm behind NRATV.
The NRA portrays itself as an unwitting dupe in the April 12 lawsuit, alleging that its 40-year partner swindled it through contracts that allowed the ad firm to charge virtually unlimited expenses and potentially permitted current NRA president Oliver North to double-dip into the group’s finances.
The New Yorker followed up with a detailed report into the layers of mutual self-dealing between the NRA and Ackerman that have pushed it to the financial brink. According to the report, the gun lobbying giant is on the verge of insolvency after hundreds of millions of dollars flowed from gun owners’ memberships and donations into the pockets of NRA and Ackerman execs.
What’s missing from the picture is that today’s ongoing scandal is largely a repeat of a fiscal mismanagement fiasco that played out in the mid 1990s, featuring the same key players: Wayne LaPierre and Ackerman McQueen.
Today’s allegations about the NRA’s ties to Ackerman are “exactly the same” as what occurred in the 1990s, Jeff Knox, a lifelong gun rights advocate whose father, Neal, was an NRA board member who narrowly lost a 1997 vote to become the group’s president, told TPM.
“It’s not clear what we’re paying for, it’s not clear what we’re accountable to, we don’t have standards, and this needs to change,” Knox said.
Then, like now, the NRA was in a state of existential crisis. In 1998, a group of NRA board members delivered a 127-page packet of documents to the Federal Elections Committee demanding the prosecution of NRA management, while current New York state Attorney General Letitia James has floated probing the tax-exempt status of the organization, which is incorporated in the Empire State.
Ackerman did not return TPM’s request for comment, but has called the lawsuit “frivolous, inaccurate and intended to cause harm to the reputation of our company.”
“The NRA strives to comply with all applicable regulations and believes its control practices are fully compliant,” said NRA counsel William Brewer III in a statement to TPM. NRA Public Affairs managing director Andrew Arulanandam told TPM that the New Yorker piece was written by “a paid staff member of an anti-gun tabloid,” saying that it has concerns about the “accuracy of the reporting.”
Ackerman “created” Wayne LaPierre and the modern NRA
Ackerman’s enduring hold on the gun group can be explained in large part by its relationship with current NRA Chief Executive Officer Wayne LaPierre, who has been with the organization for decades.
The NRA first retained the Oklahoma-based firm in the early 1980s to help move the brand away from its postbellum origins as a marksmanship group to become the nation’s foremost advocacy group for the untrammeled individual right to bear arms.
Successive insurrections within the group, starting in the 1970s, saw hardline gun activists come to prominence in the organization, with Ackerman hired to burnish that image.
Ackerman set to work on launching an aggressive mailing campaign to expand membership, pioneering the fear-inducing tactics that the NRA uses to bolster membership and contributions. It also built up the personal brand of LaPierre himself, a man whose bellicose public persona is contradicted by a shy and diminutive personal manner.
“Ackerman McQueen created Wayne,” John Aquilino, a former NRA spokesman told TPM, adding that they “fashioned him as a tough guy.”
Ackerman’s efforts worked. An ad campaign featuring celebrities like Tom Selleck and Ted Nugent holding their personal weapons with the slogan, “I am the NRA” was wildly popular, and LaPierre became something of a celebrity in his own right.
Discontent within the ranks
But some at the NRA were starting to grow suspicious of Ackerman’s influence and where the huge sums the ad firm was receiving were actually going. By the mid-1980s, the NRA’s in-house public affairs staff, including Aquilino, was ousted, and Ackerman was brought in-house at the NRA.
Former NRA lobbyist Richard Feldman told TPM he saw this arrangement as a “built-in conflict of interest.”
“It never seemed right to me that they’d be willing to tell the client what the client needed, there was no review process,” Feldman said. “I felt for many, many years that Ackerman McQueen was far more important than the board of directors.”
Feldman’s suspicions proved to be well-founded.
A confidential audit submitted to the FEC showed Ackerman receiving $23.6 million in contracts from the NRA from 1993 to 1995, in part for radio shows and TV spots the group was buying. In a statement also submitted to the FEC, a group of NRA board members said that the audit showed that “cronyism was apparent between NRA and its major vendors such as the PR firm Ackerman McQueen,” adding that the company had never undergone “a competitive contract bidding process.”
Meanwhile, the NRA’s coffers were dwindling. A 1995 Associated Press story found that the NRA ran cumulative operating $69 million in deficits from 1991 to 1993. Between 1991 and 1994, the group’s assets reportedly dropped from $103 million to $47 million.
David Gross, an NRA board member during the period, told TPM that “the NRA membership was being harvested like a crop for private benefit.”
Neal Knox, then a board member, told LaPierre to fire Ackerman in 1996. Instead, the NRA signed a new contract with an Ackerman subsidiary called Mercury. That same year, Knox’s son Jeff recalled to TPM, his father began to push for LaPierre’s firing.
According to the affidavit filed with the FEC, Mercury President Tony Makris responded by recruiting actor Charlton Heston to run against Knox for an officer position in the 1997 NRA election.
“When you have Moses walk into your convention and say he’s running for the board, he’ll win,” Jeff Knox told TPM.
The Mercury higher-ups allegedly helped cast Knox as the fringier hardline candidate, and secured a Heston victory. With their man in place, former NRA executives told TPM, the advertising firm was allowed to maintain its hold on the group and continue to ratchet up its particular brand of fear-based advertising.
Three years after the election against Knox, Heston would famously use an Ackerman-made phrase to attack presidential candidate Al Gore on his pro-gun control stance, in the wake of the Columbine High School Massacre.
“I want to say those fighting words for everyone within the sound of my voice to hear and to heed, and especially for you, Mr. Gore: ‘From my cold, dead hands!'” Heston yelled at a 2000 rally.
What’s old is new again
The NRA’s current financial woes bear a striking similarity to what happened during that tumultuous period in the 1990s.
The 2019 lawsuit accuses the NRA of signing contracts with Ackerman under which the gun lobby would cover the ad firm’s “travel and related expenses.” The contracts also required the NRA to funnel money to additional third-party contractors working on NRA issues, and provide a “termination fee to cover severance payments” if the NRA’s relationship with Ackerman ended.
The terms of the contract emerged in part because the NRA has been conducting an internal investigation into whether Ackerman was systematically over-billing, potentially providing the gun lobby with inflated budgets. The NRA is seeking those documents as part of its investigation, which Ackerman allegedly refuses to turn over.
Oliver North, the organization’s president, is suggested to have signed a separate agreement with Ackerman under which the NRA would cover all of his costs, effectively allowing North to double-dip.
On top of that, the New Yorker story alleges that some of the NRA’s top vendors employed close relatives of the gun lobby’s executives, allowing money from top-dollar contracts to stay within the family, so to speak.
David Gross, a 1990-era NRA board member, recalled that during the scandal in that period, “everyone’s brother-in-law had a job providing services at a top rate.”
Documentation backs this up. The 1998 FEC affidavit accuses the lobby of “unethical, insider dealings” amid concerns that “vendors, gun manufacturers, and self-dealing board members have taken control of NRA to protect their vested interests.”
The affidavit goes on to say that “the NRA, through its public relations firm, could willingly accept inflated invoices and thus, overpay vendors,” and accuses LaPierre of failing “to follow the simplest of business procedures – having written agreements with vendors.”
Another parallel: heavy spending on media appearances. In the 1990s, a chunk of Ackerman’s spending went to publicity efforts on LaPierre’s behalf. The New Yorker story documents how NRATV — an Ackerman project — pays nearly $1 million per year to right-wing commentator Dana Loesch.
Brewer, the NRA counsel, pushed back on these allegations, saying that the NRA “has a conflict of interest policy and, where appropriate, related party transactions are reviewed and approved by a committee of independent directors.”
“Naturally, there are occasions where the NRA engages vendors who have a connection to NRA executives, employees or board members – but only when such an arrangement works in the best interest of the organization and its members,” Brewer said in the statement.
LaPierre deserves a good amount of the blame for allowing the NRA to basically relive the same scandal nearly thirty years apart, some former NRA executives say.
“He’s been Executive Vice President since 1991, so I think that’s a long enough time for him to take ownership of it,” Feldman told TPM.