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'Misfire' takes a hard look at nepotism, fraud and corruption in the NRA

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The National Rifle Association is in a bit of trouble. The New York state attorney general sued to dissolve the organization that's at the center of the gun lobby. The NRA is a nonprofit accused of diverting money from its charitable mission. Our colleague, Tim Mak, has been investigating where some of the money went.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: We're talking about things like millions of dollars in private jets, lavish meals, fancy vacations to Europe and the Bahamas. There's six figures in luxurious suits for Wayne LaPierre personally from Rodeo Drive.

INSKEEP: Tim refers there to Wayne LaPierre, a longtime leader of the NRA. LaPierre is also a central character in Tim Mak's new book, "Misfire." Gun lobby insiders unhappy with the NRA gave interviews and documents that show a group now divided.

MAK: It's got a revolt by some of its own members. It's got serious financial troubles. In 2018, 2019, it could barely even pay its own employees. It's got multiple congressional investigations that have looked into its financial misconduct. And the New York attorney general is currently engaged in litigation with the NRA, trying to dissolve the entire organization because of what they've identified as tens of millions of dollars in corrupt spending over just a few years.

INSKEEP: And a lot of that spending is traced back, in one way or another, to Wayne LaPierre, the key figure, the executive vice president, the guy who's effectively running the organization day to day. And you're pretty explicit about why it is that people are now dishing on Wayne LaPierre to you and to investigators. What did he do?

MAK: A lot of people feel kind of betrayed by Wayne LaPierre because as the organization began to collapse, he turned his back on a lot of his close friends, tried to blame them for his decisions and his actions and his - what he calls kind of management by chaos. And feeling betrayed by this, and also feeling betrayed by a lot of the misconduct and corrupt spending that happened inside the NRA, some folks were willing to talk for the first time to an investigative reporter like myself. I mean, this book is made up of more than 120 interviews with people inside the NRA universe and thousands of pages of secret depositions, internal emails, private documents that we used to paint a picture of the NRA over the last decade in this book.

INSKEEP: You describe processes that seem designed to hide expenses or even launder expenses. I'm thinking of a very expensive restaurant and cigar bar in Alexandria, Va., where you say that NRA executives would lay down a credit card to pay. But it wasn't their credit card or the NRA's credit card. What was going on there?

MAK: They really like to frequent this Italian restaurant and cigar bar called Lentini's (ph). And they would often charge it to their advertising firm Ackerman McQueen's credit card. And Ackerman McQueen would then often bill that back to the National Rifle Association as a nondescript expense, which would then be paid off. And by doing this, they'd be able to hide these expenses from its board of directors and from their public disclosures, which the NRA is required to make.

INSKEEP: I want to figure out why you feel this matters so much. Would you remind us what the NRA does and where it comes from?

MAK: Well, the NRA has no peer when it comes to the gun policy debate in America. Certainly, on the pro Second Amendment side, there's no other organization that's quite as powerful and quite as controversial. It's got 4.9 million members and arguably is one of the biggest things that stands between the United States and the adoption of, say, some gun control legislation that might have been enacted otherwise.

INSKEEP: How has the NRA involved itself in debates after big school shootings, like Columbine more than 20 years ago or Sandy Hook in 2012?

MAK: After Columbine, they decided to take a certain approach in which they said guns in school, by and large, we do not like it. We do not support it. But after Sandy Hook, they decided that more guns, more armed guards in schools was a better option. One of the things in "Misfire" that we trace is the reaction inside the building, inside NRA headquarters after Sandy Hook happens and how they decide that they're not so much interested in pursuing moderate Democrats anymore, and that they want to double down on only Republican members of Congress and conservative support and embrace a conservative culture war strategy following Sandy Hook.

INSKEEP: Is that just representative of the increasing polarization of the country or something more?

MAK: I think there's always been this push and pull inside the organization, that the lobbyists want to find legislative compromises. And the folks in the NRA that are fundraisers and want to grow the membership numbers really subscribe to more radical messaging because that's what gets money to come in. And that's what gets people to sign up for the NRA. And after Sandy Hook, the latter group kind of wins out. And, you know, it would be a mistake to say that the NRA isn't part of the broader politicization and polarization that we see in this country. But in the end, I think the NRA's shift to the right is because its ad people and its membership people and its fundraisers won out against the compromising lobbyists.

INSKEEP: Are you suggesting that, at least in part, the NRA has become more and more extreme on gun policy because that kept the money flowing in for the private jets and the expense account dinners and the expensive clothes and everything else?

MAK: I think that's part of it. I mean, one of the major themes of the book is that the NRA is very, very successful during the Obama years. I mean, those are the years when the NRA was able to sell fear of the Obama administration taking away guns or gun rights. But it's only after Donald Trump is elected that the money starts to dry up. And in this contraction, in all these problems and troubles, some of their corruption starts to bubble up. This financial squeeze starts to push up all these other problems that have been happening, but hidden because of how successful they were with money in the Obama years.

INSKEEP: Have you had an opportunity to talk to some rank-and-file NRA members, not insiders at headquarters, but just rank-and-file people and find out what they feel about the organization these days?

MAK: There's a lot of dismay about the leadership of Wayne LaPierre and other top executives. There are even kind of sub-groups - groups created by NRA members who want accountability and reform inside the organization - that have formed and are actively trying to push the NRA in a direction of greater transparency.

INSKEEP: Tim Mak of NPR News. His new book is called "Misfire: Inside The Downfall Of The NRA." Thanks so much.

MAK: Thank you very much, Steve.

INSKEEP: And Tim reached out to Wayne LaPierre and the NRA for comment, didn't hear back.

(SOUNDBITE OF KOETT'S "LAST NIGHT ON RIVER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.