I first ran into the lobbying power of the National Rifle Association eight years ago. I wasn’t working on gun control. Rather, I was urging Congress increase campaign finance disclosures in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United. As I testified at the time, inviting corporations to spend in elections posed two distinct problems for shareholders who were the ultimate underwriters of this largesse. First, there was a lack of transparency. Investors did not know where their money was going. And second, there was a lack of consent. Stockholders were never asked to approve the amount of political spending or which candidates were receiving money. I was urging Congress to pass a piece of legislation called the DISCLOSE Act which would have, among other provisions, curbed what was then the nascent problem of dark money.
Enter the NRA from stage right. The NRA objected to the DISCLOSE Act because it would have required more transparency of money flowing through it and other so-called social welfare organizations under Section 501(c)(4) of the Internal Revenue Code. The NRA must have been quite convincing because they managed to wrangle an exemption from the proposed legislation. (The added language to the bill was such that it could only apply to the gun rights group.) In the end, the DISCLOSE Act was killed by a single vote in the Senate during a filibuster, thus the NRA carve-out never became law. But the entire episode was a reminder that the NRA can get its way even on matters that don’t involve the Second Amendment.
Lately however, the NRA has found itself the focus of two different controversies, one conventional and the other not. Businesses with ties to the group have come under pressure from the well-organized Parkland shooting survivors and others to sever their connections. Among those companies that have ended their relationship with the NRA are Wyndham Hotels and Enterprise Rent A Car. Essentially, companies are making the classic business decision that the costs of a relationship with the NRA now are greater than the benefits.
What is unusual is a story broken by McClatchy’s D.C. Bureau that the FBI is investigating the NRA for perhaps acting as a conduit for Russian money to support Donald Trump. The super-patriotic NRA dupes of the Russians?
The FBI is investigating whether any money flowed between the NRA and Alexander Torshin, the deputy governor of Russia’s central bank who is known to have a close relationship with Russia President Vladimir Putin. Remember that the NRA is a so-called “social welfare organization” and does not have to disclose its donors.
The probe has piqued the interest of Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who sits on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Wyden has written a few letters to the NRA asking whether they received any money from Torshin or other Russians. Needless to say, the question is of some moment since foreigners are barred from spending in U.S. elections. And by “barred” I mean it is a crime.
For such a sophisticated organization, it’s surprising that the NRA’s Torshin story keeps shifting. In late March, the NRA said it received only one contribution from a Russian – Torshin – between 2012 and 2018. It was a “life membership” of $1,000 and was not used for election-related activities.
Then, in an April 10th letter to Wyden, the NRA said that it had received money from about 25 Russians (which may include U.S. citizens living in Russia), mainly for magazine subscriptions and membership dues. Saying that answering Wyden’s inquiries was “extraordinarily time-consuming and burdensome,” the NRA also announced it would “respectfully decline” to answer any more questions from the Senator.
Small wonder the NRA was a little testy. Four days before the letter to Wyden, oligarch Torshin was added to the list of Russian nationals sanctioned by the Treasury Department. Torshin was one of 24 Russians sanctioned that day because, in the words of the Treasury Department, they “play a key role in advancing Russia’s malign activities” including “attempting to subvert Western democracies.” Presumably, this means the NRA can’t even collect Torshin’s paltry membership dues.
Torshin is a classic example of why our campaign finance disclosure laws are broken. Law-abiding NRA members, much less the American public, have no idea that a suspect Russian is aiding the organization. This is why a reform like the DISCLOSE Act or the Honest Ads Act is needed.
Ultimately, an entity with subpoena power can resolve the mystery of whether any substantial money from Russia was funneled through the NRA in 2016. That will require more than polite inquiries from the Senator from Oregon. It will take an investigation by the FBI or possibly the Special Counsel’s office. There could well be nothing here. Or it could be a crime scene.
The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.