Alarmed by reports of mismanagement and worried over the future of the National Rifle Association, a loose faction of the group’s members, directors, and donors have pushed for dramatic changes, including the resignation of its longtime leader, Wayne LaPierre. But their campaign has run smack into the organization’s own board, which has been structured to shield insiders from challenges to the status quo.
“Wayne loyalists control the board at this point,” said Rob Pincus, spokesman for Save the Second, a nonprofit organization set up by NRA members who are seeking to reform the gun group from within. Its demands include shrinking the board from its unusually large size of 76 members to 31 (typical nonprofit boards have 20 or fewer members). The organizers also want the NRA to impose term limits and attendance requirements for directors. The group’s efforts have been opposed by the NRA’s longtime leadership, Pincus said. “They have been manipulating the bylaws and procedures for a couple of decades to make it hard for anyone to remove them.”
According to those bylaws, officers and executives can be booted by a vote of three-fourths of the organization’s executive committee. The committee is composed of the president (Carolyn Meadows), one of the two vice presidents (Charles Cotton and Willes Lee, both staunch LaPierre allies), and 20 additional board members selected by the board’s Nominating Committee, which critics say is controlled by LaPierre acolytes.
Dissenters continue to fear reprisals, but there are glimmers of momentum for an internal campaign to withhold contributions to the gun group.
One former board member, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of ongoing involvement in state gun politics, believes LaPierre holds the unshakeable loyalty of roughly two dozen current board members. If his assessment is correct, the bloc could handily quash a vote to oust the CEO.
LaPierre vividly demonstrated his control over the board during the NRA’s annual meeting this April in Indianapolis. Days before the gathering, then-NRA President Oliver North, in his role as head of the board, had called for establishing a crisis committee to conduct an internal probe into financial improprieties first uncovered by The Trace in an article co-published in partnership with The New Yorker. But when the NRA board met three days later, LaPierre was re-elected as chief executive and executive vice president, while the nominating committee denied North the opportunity to stand for re-election himself, jettisoning a right-wing celebrity who’d been chosen as a fundraising draw.
Meadows, the NRA’s choice to replace North, is a Republican insider from Georgia with a lower profile but unmistakable loyalties. “The Board stands behind Wayne,” she said in a statement after she was installed in her new role.
Even without leadership united behind LaPierre, reformers would still have a difficult time getting allies elected to the board. In the same closed-door session in which Meadows was elected president, the NRA amended its bylaws to require any board nominee to have held a lifetime membership for at least five years. As it is, recommendations for board seats have long been controlled by the nominating committee, which is tasked with approving all candidates except the small minority that NRA members select through a petition process.
When the final slate of board candidates is presented to NRA members, another restriction kicks in: Only those who have been members of the NRA for five consecutive years or have purchased a lifetime membership can cast a ballot. The same eligible NRA members can also petition for an officer or board member’s removal. But the process is difficult, and any petition must be reviewed by NRA Secretary John Frazer, who has worked for the organization since the early 1990s with only one brief interruption. According to court documents, Frazer tried to force North to quit the NRA board entirely in May after North was forced out of the presidency in April.
“Any organization can change if it wants to, but every indication is that the [NRA] board doesn’t want to,” said Laura Otten, director of The Nonprofit Center at the LaSalle University School of Business. Otten pointed to the board’s uncommonly large size as a sign that many directors may have joined it not to provide oversight but rather for political influence or business connections. “This is an organization where the board has answered to the staff, rather than the staff answering to the board,” she said. “In normal nonprofits, the board has the right and responsibility to remove poorly performing, unethical executives.”
Meanwhile, current NRA board members who have called for the group to clean house have faced alleged retaliation by LaPierre allies. Board members Sean Maloney, Timothy Knight, Esther Schneider, Allen West, and Duane Liptak have each spoken out against the excesses of the group’s leaders; all say they were stripped of committee assignments.
Liptak, an executive at the accessory company Magpul Industries, served on four separate NRA committees. On June 19, he received a letter from Meadows informing him that he had lost all but one assignment. “I have ended up on the ‘naughty list,’” he wrote on Facebook. “This needs to get sorted out, now.”
Liptak, West, Maloney, and Knight did not respond to requests for comment, and Schneider declined to be interviewed. The NRA did not respond to questions about its board structure and policies and the allegations of reprisal made by the dissenting directors.
While the NRA reform faction tries to build momentum, insiders are circling the wagons.
“The NRA finds itself under attack,” the NRA’s former president and chief Florida lobbyist Marion Hammer wrote in a letter to the board on July 14. Hammer defended the committee purges, saying that those “who didn’t get an assignment might want to consider whether or not they want to help us save the Second Amendment or continue on a course detrimental to NRA and our mission.”
Meadows, who had joined the NRA board in 2003, is known for her connections to elite conservative circles, including being vice president of the American Conservative Union, which produces the Conservative Political Action Conference. Critics say she is implacably opposed to applying oversight to LaPierre.
At an April 24 reception for NRA benefactors who’ve pledge gifts of $1 million or more, donor David Dell’aquila ran into Meadows, whom he has known socially for years. Text messages reviewed by The Trace show Dell’aquila had plans to dine privately with Meadows, board member Willes Lee, and conservative writers and activists two nights later.
Dell’aquila asked Meadows about NRA fundraising executive Tyler Schropp, who had an ownership stake in a third-party vendor that received an NRA contract, according to The Trace’s reporting. Dell’aquila said that Meadows claimed ignorance about Schropp’s apparent conflict of interest and was generally unfazed by the extensive self-dealing that has surfaced at the NRA. “Everybody does that — that’s how it’s done in D.C.,” he recalled Meadows saying. According to Dell’aquila, she added, “You need to be careful asking about these stories,”
Meadows did not respond to multiple requests for comment about the alleged exchange.
A senior gun industry executive and NRA lifetime member recalled Dell’aquila telling him about the brush off from Meadows a few days later. “Dave got riled up,” said the executive, who spoke on condition of anonymity out of concern for his business. “He was surprised, because it’s such an obvious conflict of interest. She knows damn well it’s a conflict of interest.”
Dell’aquila has since gone public with his dismay. In July, he began an aggressive campaign to starve the NRA of contributions unless it removes LaPierre and several of his allies. He’s also calling for the board to be cut down to 30 members.
“The soap opera needs to stop,” Dell’aquila told The Trace. “This is not Wayne’s personal organization.”
Correction: the original version of this story incorrectly identified the NRA’s secretary as David Frazer. His name is John Frazer.