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President Donald Trump stands with the NRA's Wayne LaPierre and Chris Cox at the gun group's annual convention in April. [AP/Evan Vucc]

National Rifle Association

Election Commission to NRA: Your Campaign Finance Reporting Doesn’t Add Up

The gun group misreported its spending on key Senate races and the presidential campaign.

The National Rifle Association has acknowledged that it made multiple errors in the accounting of its 2016 election campaign expenditures, causing it to overreport amounts it spent trying to influence the presidential race and highly competitive Senate contests in eight states, according to a series of letters it sent to the Federal Election Commission on Thursday.

The gun organization blamed flawed software for the mistakes, which, in some instances, resulted in “a double accounting for the same transaction.” In other words, certain dollar amounts were counted twice.

The NRA recorded spending over $50 million to help elect Donald Trump and a handful of Republicans in crucial Senate races last year, more than almost any other outside interest group.

The NRA’s letters followed queries from the FEC spotlighting discrepancies in the group’s filings with the agency. The FEC found mistakes in independent expenditures reported by the NRA Political Victory Fund in the presidential race along with high-profile Senate contests in Colorado, Florida, Indiana, Missouri, North Carolina, Nevada, Ohio, and Wisconsin — the battles where the gun group concentrated almost all of its resources.

The inconsistencies cover an eight-month period in 2016, from March through November — a portion of the primaries and all of the general election. They involve independent expenditures — a bucket term for money spent supporting or opposing candidates in federal elections, but not given directly to a campaign.

It’s not clear by how much the NRA misreported its 2016 election expenditures. The gun group flaunts its spending power as evidence of its influence in Washington. Ten days after the November election, the NRA sent out a fund-raising letter to its members, taking credit for Trump’s victory. “We spent every dollar and every dime we could lay our hands on,” it said.

Campaign finance experts told The Trace that it is unusual for the FEC to send so many queries to one organization in such a short period of time.

The NRA did not respond to a request for comment.

“What the NRA is saying is, our info isn’t accurate, and the numbers we disclosed aren’t correct,” said Jordan Libowitz, a spokesman for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a government watchdog group. “All their filings since they started using this software — and we don’t know when that is — are possibly incorrect. There are a ton of potentially incorrect NRA disclosures out there.”

He added, “This seems like a textbook case for an audit.”

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Most of the letters from the election commission query the NRA about the same error. Groups that spend money to influence campaigns are required to report expenditures to the FEC within either 24 or 48 hours, depending on the time of year relative to an election. They are also required to file monthly reports that account for all independent spending over the previous four weeks — which means that all the 24 and 48-hour reports must correspond to monthly totals. In the NRA’s case, the two reported numbers didn’t always match up, the FEC said.

Each query from the FEC included a warning about the possibility of “audit action,” which may occur depending on the agency’s evaluation of the NRA’s responses to its questions.

This is not the first time the NRA has had problems with the way it discloses campaign finance information to the FEC. In one case, in 2006, it had to pay a civil penalty of $17,000 to the agency for failing to report a series of expenditures in a timely manner. In 2015, it ran into similar trouble again, and had to pay a penalty of $2,750.

“For a such a large organization with such a knowledgeable legal department, the NRA fairly regularly messes up its filings,” said Robert McGuire, a campaign finance expert at the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan research group that tracks money in politics.

“Whether it’s an accident or some sort of obfuscation, I don’t know.”