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Top NRA official departs amid turmoil
03:55 - Source: CNN
Washington CNN  — 

A Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee is aiming to uncover more examples of potential financial impropriety at the National Rifle Association and convince the powerful House committee to launch a formal investigation into the tax-exempt nonprofit.

In a new letter obtained by CNN, Rep. Brad Schneider of Illinois has asked the NRA’s former advertising and public-relations firm Ackerman McQueen to release letters, receipts and other materials that document the firm’s financial relationship with the organization.

The letter comes as the gun-rights group is engaged in a bitter legal battle with Ackerman amid allegations of financial impropriety. It also comes amid probes from attorneys general in Washington DC and New York into whether the NRA violated its tax-exempt status.

Democrats on the Senate Finance Committee have also pressed the NRA for more information about its finances. But House Democrats have an option their Senate colleagues do not: subpoena power.

Citing recent news reports and court filings alleging wrongdoing at the nation’s top gun-rights organization, Schneider’s letter lays out a seven-point wish list of requests for material, including information relating to the purchase of clothing or travel expenses billed through Ackerman on behalf of NRA management or board members.

“We’ve heard allusions to many of the things that are in this letter, but not the details,” said Schneider in an interview with CNN. “We’ve seen so much self-dealing and what I would call outside-the-lines activity. I believe we’ve just scratched the surface.”

Big bills

The NRA has already faced a wave of scrutiny amid allegations of seemingly exorbitant spending at the gun rights nonprofit group.

Chief executive Wayne LaPierre has come under fire for billing Ackerman nearly $275,000 for clothes at a Beverly Hills boutique, and more than $240,000 on trips to destinations including Italy, Hungary and the Bahamas. The NRA has said they were all business-related. The NRA allegedly considered purchasing a roughly $6 million Texas mansion for LaPierre, complete with a country club membership.

“These events transpired over a year ago, the real estate transaction in question never happened, and no NRA money was ultimately spent,” says Andrew Arulanandam, an NRA spokesman. “This is a non-story if there ever was one.”

Other inquiries from Schneider relate to allegations that NRA leadership – including LaPierre and former NRA President Oliver North – benefited from deceptive billing, self-dealing and other mismanagement facilitated by Ackerman McQueen.

One person close to the House committee said that Schneider’s request for documents relating to “gifts, benefits, or other tangible items of value” is designed to draw out evidence of similar spending and exorbitant purchases for NRA leadership.

Much of the recent attention to the NRA’s finances stems from the caustic legal battle between it and Ackerman. The NRA sued its longtime advertising agency earlier this year, prompting a counter-suit from Ackerman. The two sides severed ties after roughly 40 years in business together.

But the ongoing legal battle has revealed a series of embarrassing allegations about how both the NRA and Ackerman were managing their finances and led to the end of the controversial streaming network, NRATV.

This latest letter is the third that Schneider has sent in the past few months related to the NRA, including one sent in May urging the IRS to investigate the group’s tax-exempt status. The committee source said Schneider has been working behind the scenes to urge the full Ways and Means Committee to hold a hearing on the NRA’s financial issues. That could be a first step toward a more formal investigation into the NRA’s finances and, possibly, a decision to subpoena Ackerman McQueen and others for more information.

Schneider told CNN other Democratic members of the committee are supportive of his inquiry. “Everyone’s aware of what I’m doing. I’m confident I have their support,” he said.

The committee source was more skeptical. “Is that to say it’s going to happen and Ways and Means is going to pursue an investigation?” The committee source asked. “We’re not at that point but we’re talking about it. I mean, how many smoking guns do you need? A whole gun closet full?”

A time of turmoil

The NRA has been weathering a wave of negative publicity in the wake of the lawsuits with Ackerman. An internal power struggle in the group has seen the departures of not only North but the NRA’s longtime top lobbyist Christopher Cox and its longtime spokeswoman. On top of that, at least six people from the NRA’s 76-member board of directors have resigned their positions in recent weeks.

The turmoil has partly been driven by the allegations of improper spending, which the NRA denies. But the NRA has also faced criticism for its continued opposition to gun control measures in the wake of mass shootings.

In August – on the heels of mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio – 42% of registered voters said they had a favorable view of the NRA, compared to 47% who said they had an unfavorable view of the group, according to a Fox News poll. It was the first time in the poll’s history that more voters viewed the NRA negatively.

The poll showed that positive views of the NRA slipped among all voters, but they also dropped among households with gun owners. Some 56% of gun-owner households had a positive view of the NRA, down from 67% a year earlier.

But the group still has significant pull in Washington and with President Donald Trump, who has spoken multiple times with LaPierre since this month’s shootings. Along with input from Republican lawmakers, the phone calls with LaPierre have solidified Trump’s opposition to universal background checks for gun purchases, sources told CNN.