Investigation claims NRA violated federal election law

The National Rifle Association may have violated several federal election laws in the way it has been gathering donations for the past seven years, according to an investigative report from Yahoo News published Tuesday.

The issue at hand is that the NRA reportedly mixed donations for elections with those for other solicitations, which violated the Federal Election Campaign Act “and a legion of state and federal antifraud statutes designed to protect the public from phony charities and false or misleading solicitations,” wrote Alan Berlow, the author of the piece.

Berlow also cites Federal Election Commission law, which requires solicitations identify where the donations will go and specifically if the money will go to a political action committee. The author claims the NRA violated FEC law by funneling donation money to its PAC, the NRA Political Victory Fund without properly soliciting donations from those who may not have wanted their money to go toward political ends.

“There are at least three clear violations,” said Brett Kappel, an expert on political law and campaign finance at law firm Akerman LLP. “First of all, they can’t be soliciting from the general public at their website. Then there’s the fact that the money is not being solicited in the name of the PAC; they have to say it’s for the PAC and what the political purpose of the PAC is. And then there are multiple missing disclaimers such as the disclaimer saying that contributions have to be voluntary.”    

The article has largely been decried by pro-gun websites and attacks against its author claim he has an anti-gun agenda.

It is true that Berlow has written for several liberal publications – some 21 articles on Salon hold his byline intermittently between 2000 and 2013, as do two pieces on Mother Jones in 2013.

The last of Berlow’s Salon pieces focused on the NRA, as did the two he wrote for Mother Jones, and they weren’t flattering, to say the least. In a Salon article, Berlow accuses the NRA of working against police by enabling criminals.

“The NRA is a twisted, paranoid organization whose main achievement is to have made law enforcement harder,” Berlow wrote.

The NRA’s membership, on the other hand, tends to be dominated by those more comfortable on the opposite end of the political spectrum – though there are a significant number of Democratic pro-gun legislators in the country, a Guns.com analysis of NRA data found – so the initial response to Yahoo News’ piece should come as no surprise.

Joseph Birkenstock, an attorney and former chief counsel for the Democratic National Committee, told Berlow he saw clear violations on the NRA’s part.

“You really can’t solicit for a connected PAC outside the connected organization’s restricted class,” Birkenstock told Berlow. “That’s really not a gray area of campaign finance law; that’s pretty much ‘first principles.’”   

The “restricted class” is a federal classification that refers an organization’s membership and the NRA’s political arm is not supposed to solicit donations from the general public, the article contends.

Mark Everson served the George W. Bush Administration as IRS commissioner and recently announced his bid for the Republican presidential nomination. He told Berlow that the NRA could have a serious problem on its hands if the accusations are correct.

He said the federal agency might act “If they had comments that came in and believed there was a problem.”

Berlow further alleges the NRA was the only politically active nonprofit that failed to report any of its elections spending to the IRS.      

The NRA spent almost $37 million on political campaigns in 2014, $8 million more than in the 2012 election cycle. The Political Victory Fund PAC reported more than $20.7 million in expenditures in 2014 and more than $16 million in 2012, Yahoo News reported.

With a total revenue of almost $348 million in 2013, the NRA saw a $91 million increase from the previous year, according to the gun rights group’s Internal Revenue Service filing.

According to that same filing, Yahoo News reported, the NRA also falsely claimed it doesn’t engage in political campaign activities.

“A quick look at the FEC’s website makes it clear that the NRA-ILA is making both independent expenditures in federal races and membership communications in federal races. It ought to be reporting at least the former and, I would argue, the latter, as political expenditures on its 990” form, said John Pomeranz, an attorney specializing in counseling tax-exempt organizations that engage in elections activities.

At its annual convention, held earlier this month in Nashville, Tennessee, Executive Vice President Wayne La Pierre devoted most of his opening speech to dressing down Hillary Clinton, the likely Democratic frontrunner for the coming presidential elections.

In fact, the NRA’s leadership forum, whose theme seemed a rallying cry for the upcoming elections and a Democratic defeat, included speeches from several Republican hopefuls.

Guns.com reached out to both the NRA and Yahoo News, but could not reach anyone for comment by article publication.