A complaint filed Wednesday with the Connecticut State Elections Enforcement Commission accuses the National Rifle Association (NRA) of violating campaign finance law. It is the latest in a string of investigations into the gun group’s alleged practice of diverting funds from its federal political action committee (PAC) to state affiliates, which then spend the money on local elections. In certain states, like Connecticut, such tactics are illegal.
The charges center on $9,000 in campaign donations made to Connecticut politicians between 2003 and 2006, which allegedly originated in the coffers of the NRA’s national PAC, The NRA National Victory Fund.
One of the complainants leveled nearly-identical accusations last year in the neighboring state of Rhode Island. In the summer of 2013, Sam Bell, a Brown University doctoral student in geology and the state coordinator of the Rhode Island Progressive Democrats, was searching for answers to what he deemed an illogical turn of events: Bell had been part of an effort to pass an assault weapons ban in his state, which is overwhelmingly Democrat, and it had failed spectacularly. The mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, was still a recent memory, but local politicians could not be swayed. Bell, 26, heard the NRA had donated significant funds to state officials, and decided to investigate.
In Rhode Island, campaigns and state PACs are not required to report the sources of donations worth less than $100. The average campaign finance disclosure form therefore shows a mix of higher dollar donations, along with the names of their donors, and amounts below the $100 threshold with their provenance not listed. Bell noticed that the NRA’s state affiliate, which had given money to many elected officials, did not report the names of any of its donors at all. “That was a red flag,” he tells The Trace. The total reliance of anonymous donors, to Bell, suggest a stream of dollars coming from outside the state: By staying under the $100 mark, the NRA could obscure its use of outside money — cash from people who live elsewhere in the country — to influence elections and legislation in Rhode Island. It was also able to skirt the state’s campaign finance laws, under which, as with those in Connecticut, the practice is illegal.
Bell checked the campaign finance report of NRA’s federal political action committee, The NRA Political Victory Fund. Then he analyzed the report of its Rhode Island affiliate. He found that both committees had recorded donations of the same dollar amounts to the same candidates. But a look at the candidate’s report showed only one NRA-affiliated donation, which, according to Bell, indicated that the money had originated with the federal PAC and been transferred to the state organization before being given to the state campaigns. The discovery prompted Bell to file a complaint with the Rhode Island Board of Elections. In 2014, the regulatory body fined the gun lobbying group $63,000.
Bell was curious about whether the NRA had broken similar laws in other states. He enlisted a Brown undergrad, 20-year-old Duncan Weinstein, to help sift through documents. Together, they discovered what they believe is evidence that the NRA may have committed the same violation in Connecticut, and quickly moved to file a complaint.
In addition to Bell and Weinstein, the complaint was signed by Carlos Soto, whose sister Victoria was killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting; Sarah Clements, a gun control advocate whose mother was a survivor of Sandy Hook; and Po Murray, a parent of four children who attended the school.
The NRA declined to comment for this story, but the practices it is accused of in Connecticut and Rhode Island are legal in other states, so it’s conceivable the organization inadvertently ran afoul of the law. But Bell thinks otherwise. “We discovered fishy things in a number of states,” he says. “We’re just not ready to go public with them yet.”
Earlier this summer, following a Yahoo News investigation by reporter Alan Berlow, the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) filed formal complaints with both the IRS and the Federal Election Commission, asking them to audit the NRA. The group had allegedly funneled money into its Political Victory Fund, even though donors hadn’t intended for it to wind up there. This, too, is illegal.
“The NRA takes a very cavalier attitude toward campaign finance,” Bells says. “They have a ton of money coming in. I think their philosophy is: If they get caught, they can just pay the fine and move on.”
[Photo: Flickr user Ervins Strauhmanis]