When National Rifle Association higher-ups visited Moscow in 2015 to meet with Kremlin insiders and arms manufacturers, they did so as an official delegation of the gun rights group and not, as the organization has insisted, of their own accord. And the NRA’s soon-to-be president Pete Brownell was enticed to join the trip only after being assured that he could explore private business opportunities while in Moscow, which he did.
Those are among the conclusions of a report by the minority staff of the Senate Finance Committee that was released today by Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon. The 77-page report largely confirms what was already known about the Moscow visit and provides the most comprehensive government account of the episode to date.
While the report, which also details the gun rights group’s attempt to move payments made in connection with the Moscow trip “off the NRA’s books,” is sharply critical and calls for further investigation, it stops short of alleging that any crime was committed.
“The NRA lied about the 2015 delegation trip to Moscow,” Wyden said in a statement. “This was an official trip undertaken so that NRA insiders could get rich — a clear violation of the principle that tax exempt resources should not be used for personal benefit.”
Neither Brownell nor the NRA immediately responded to interview requests.
Maria Butina, a Russian gun rights activist, and Alexander Torshin, a Russian political figure and lifetime NRA member, were driving forces behind the Moscow visit and worked in collaboration with a number of NRA leaders and staff to make it happen, the report found.
Butina pleaded guilty in December 2018 to a single count of having conspired to infiltrate conservative groups in the United States. In her plea agreement, Butina admitted that, at Torshin’s direction and with the assistance of Paul Erickson, a figure in right-wing political circles who was then her boyfriend, she had “sought to establish unofficial lines of communication with Americans having power and influence over U.S. politics,” and that she had tried to use those backchannels “on behalf of the Russian Federation.” The report shows some of the specific ways the NRA helped Butina by introducing her to conservative power-brokers.
According to the plea agreement, Butina sent a message to a Russian official (widely understood to be Torshin) shortly after the NRA visit that has been “translated as saying, ‘We should let them express their gratitude now, we will put pressure on them quietly later.’”
The Treasury Department added Torshin to a sanctions list in April of last year. Spanish authorities had previously implicated him in a money laundering scheme involving Russian organized crime. At the time of the NRA’s Moscow visit, Torshin was deputy governor of Russia’s central bank.
In January, the NRA sought to distance itself — and particularly its leader Wayne LaPierre — from the Moscow visit. The group’s outside counsel William Brewer told The New York Times that LaPierre forbade staffers from going. In a statement that the NRA provided to the Times, Allan Cors, the gun group’s president at the time of the Moscow visit, said LaPierre had cautioned him not to join. “Wayne did not want any misperception that this was an official trip,” Cors said. “Frankly, I had similar concerns.”
While the Times story suggested that Cors withdrew from the trip based on those concerns, an email he wrote to Torshin attributes the change in plans to “health reasons,” the report found. In the same email, Cors wrote that David Keene, an NRA board member and former president, and Joe Gregory, who leads a group of high-dollar NRA donors, would go and “represent the NRA and our 5 million members better than anyone else.”
Cors went on to tell Torshin, “I am sorry that I won’t be with the delegation and appreciate the arrangements you have made on behalf of the NRA and of me.”
After Cors backed out, Butina and Erickson intensified efforts to get Brownell, then the vice president of the gun rights group, to go along. “The next president of the NRA — who would assume office at the time of the next American president — is a man that the Kremlin (and Russian arms manufacturers) want to meet,” Erickson told Brownell in an email.
Brownell, whose family business specializes in firearms accessories, made clear that he would not visit Russia for NRA purposes alone, according to emails provided to the committee staff. “I am not interested in attending if just an NRA trip,” he told the head of his compliance office. In another email to the same man, Brownell said that he didn’t want to go unless doing so provided “an import or export opportunity” for his business.
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According to the report, Brownell went to Moscow three days before the rest of the NRA delegation in order to meet with gun makers. Through his attorney, Brownell confirmed to investigators that he had contact with several arms manufacturers, but said no business deals resulted. Delegation members, Senate investigators found, met with representatives from arms makers Kalashnikov Concern, Molot-Oruzhie, and Tula Cartridge Works that were “owned or controlled by” Russians under Treasury Department sanctions. Brownell’s attorney had not identified those companies as among the ones with whom Brownell had contact, according to the report.
Delegation members met with two individuals on the sanctions list: Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s deputy prime minister, and Igor Shchyogolev, a special assistant to President Vladimir Putin. The report states that delegation members also met with oligarchs reputedly close to the Russian president.
Butina’s advocacy group, Right to Bear Arms, initially made “significant expenditures” to cover the delegations’s cost while in Moscow, according to the report. The NRA, however, approved reimbursement of some of the participants’ costs. Millie Howell, who is Wayne LaPierre’s personal assistant, was involved in that process and, at her direction, Brownell invoiced the NRA and was reimbursed $21,535, the report states.
More than two years after the trip and just days after Wyden began an inquiry into the NRA’s relationship with Torshin, the organization asked Brownell to, effectively, reimburse the reimbursement. In February 2018, Brownell paid $17,000 to the NRA, in what Brownell’s attorney characterized as a way for the NRA to move Moscow payments off its books. It’s unclear why Brownell paid back roughly $4,500 less than he was originally reimbursed.
Brownell, who left the post of NRA president last year, resigned from the NRA board in May, citing the demands of his business. At the time, investigators were seeking answers from Brownell about the Moscow trip and turmoil at the NRA was intensifying.
“It’s been an honor to serve the 5 million members of the NRA,” Brownell said in a statement at the time, “and I will continue standing side by side with the millions of Americans who care deeply about defending the Second Amendment.”