In early 2018, the National Rifle Association, alarmed by growing scrutiny from oversight agencies in New York State, hired attorney William A. Brewer III and his firm to fend off the threat. Rather than compromise, Brewer attacked. Today, the NRA — once considered the most powerful interest group in American politics — faces the prospect of extinction.
Some NRA members and a handful of the gun group’s former leaders have long charged that Brewer has imperiled the organization by prioritizing the interests of chief executive Wayne LaPierre. Only recently has LaPierre gotten his own attorney in cases that involved both the NRA boss and the organization. LaPierre’s new attorney and Brewer share history: Both have worked for a development group behind a proposed ice skating complex in the Bronx that has been described as the largest in the world.
Since his hiring, Brewer has been the prime architect of at least 10 lawsuits that the NRA has filed, while also handling defense work and arbitration proceedings that followed the expulsion of top personnel who’d clashed with LaPierre. To date, Brewer has prevailed in only one of those 10 suits, a skirmish over legal bills. He’s lost two cases, settled one, and the remainder are pending.
In Brewer’s first year of service, the NRA paid his firm $19 million, or roughly $1.6 million a month, according to court filings and internal correspondence. If that monthly average has held, the firm has collected upward of $50 million to date — a conservative estimate given how the firm’s NRA workload has grown. The NRA has operated in the red since 2016 and saw member revenue plummet last year. LaPierre has cut staff and programs to pay soaring legal fees.
In response to questions for this story, Brewer’s firm said it “does not comment on fee arrangements” and provided a statement from Andrew Arulanandam, the NRA’s public affairs director. Arulanandam said the firm has “helped the NRA prevail in a wide range of matters” and pointed to the legal bills dispute, a recent settlement with a New York regulator, and a lawsuit that the NRA filed in 2019 against the city of San Francisco. (The NRA withdrew the San Francisco suit, which was not handled by Brewer’s firm.) “We are proud of the firm’s track record for the NRA,” Arulanandam said. “The firm’s scorecard is phenomenal.”
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When the NRA hired Brewer, an investigation by New York Attorney General Letitia James loomed as a hazard. LaPierre assured associates in October 2018 that Brewer had New York connections, according to court filings, and would swiftly halt the nascent effort. Brewer would go on to publicly blast James’s investigation as a political hit job and, according to a recently published insider tell-all, privately dismiss her as “not that smart” and “scared to death of us.”
Contrary to LaPierre’s rosy prediction, Brewer did not derail James, who in August filed a 164-page suit against LaPierre and the NRA that alleges an array of illegal enrichment schemes and seeks to dissolve the nonprofit organization. Nonprofit law experts told The Trace that LaPierre’s removal is assured if James can prove even a fraction of her charges. While dissolution is unlikely, they said James won’t be satisfied with the ouster of LaPierre alone and expect fines, overhaul of governance procedures, and removal of complicit board members.
James’s suit also takes aim at the NRA’s relationship with Brewer’s firm itself, alleging that the group has been reckless in expanding the firm’s mandate and in the legal fees it has paid.
Brewer built his career in part by persuading clients that his relentless, costly approach would protect them. In New York, where Brewer’s tendency to argue procedural issues and slow cases has been on display, he’s accused state leaders of a politically motivated attack on the NRA and violating the group’s First Amendment rights. Those charges, whatever their validity, don’t address the substance of James’s allegations, which are most likely to concern a court.
Frank Tait, an NRA member and firearms instructor who this year ran unsuccessfully for a seat on the group’s board of directors, said that under LaPierre, the interests of leadership have become too entangled with those of the organization. “Way too much member money has gone to the Brewer law firm,” Tait said, and he blames NRA leadership for failing to supervise Brewer.
“When you’re a vendor and you are given free rein,” Tait said, “costs only go up.”
In her complaint, James faults the NRA for not having effective procedures in place to ensure that the nonprofit complies with state and federal laws, as well as its own policies.
In 2018, the NRA’s audit committee, at Brewer’s direction, started to retroactively approve financial transactions that had benefited insiders. Committee chairman Charles Cotton has defended the approvals, telling The Wall Street Journal that the committee had “confirmed that the services were rendered at fair market value and worked in the best interests of the Association.” According to James’s complaint, however, the committee did not review any relevant records, such as contracts, so it failed to meet a state requirement that nonprofits approve only insider transactions that are determined to be “fair, reasonable and in the corporation’s best interest.”
Sean Delany, a lawyer who led the charities bureau of the Attorney General’s Office from 1996 to 1997, said it’s striking that the firm was paid “eye-popping” fees to rectify the very compliance issues that are the subject of the complaint. “Not only were they overpaid,” he said, “it appears they were not competent to perform that work and only did so in a cursory manner.”
If he were advising the NRA, Delany said, he’d suggest looking for better legal representation.
From early in his career, Brewer — who hails from Long Island and attended Albany Law School — has been known for prolonging cases, which can wear down adversaries and drive up fees. He’s drawn praise for tenacity and criticism for what some consider ethically dubious tactics. His firm, Brewer Attorneys & Counselors, is based in Dallas and maintains an office in New York City. In addition to bold legal advocacy, Brewer Attorneys & Counselors touts the public relations, consulting, and investigative expertise that it offers clients in high stakes litigation.
His initial NRA work involved Carry Guard, a firearms training and insurance program launched in 2017. The program offered up to $1 million in civil liability protection and $150,000 in criminal defense reimbursement to people who claimed they’d shot someone in self defense. New York’s Department of Financial Services began investigating Carry Guard for insurance law violations and regulators in other states followed, eventually leading the program to shut down. Just last week, the NRA settled with DFS over charges that resulted from that investigation, agreeing to pay a $2.5 million fine and to refrain from selling insurance in the state for five years.
In March 2018, Brewer and the NRA sued New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and the DFS in federal court. The lawsuit alleged that Cuomo had a longstanding “political vendetta” against the NRA and that the state had sought to blacklist the gun group and coerce banks, insurers, and other businesses into shunning the organization. In doing so, the lawsuit claimed, the state had discriminated against the NRA for its views on gun rights, violating the First Amendment.
Cuomo and the DFS had publicly called on businesses to consider the reputational risks of being associated with the NRA and in November 2018, the judge in the case allowed the NRA to proceed on its First Amendment claims, finding that statements by New York officials could plausibly be read as a threat to retaliate against companies doing business with the gun group.
“However controversial it may be, ‘gun promotion’ advocacy is core political speech entitled to constitutional protection,” the judge wrote. “The guidance letters and Cuomo press releases directed to this protected speech provides a sufficient basis to invoke the First Amendment.”
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The judge dismissed the NRA’s other claims, including that Cuomo and the DFS took part in a conspiracy against the gun group and wrongfully interfered with its business partnerships.
Josh Powell, who served as LaPierre’s chief of staff, published a book in September called Inside the NRA: A Tell-All Account of Corruption, Greed and Paranoia Within the Most Powerful Political Group in America. In it, he describes growing close to Brewer while working on litigation and trying to clean up the group’s business practices. Like LaPierre, Powell is charged in James’s complaint with enriching himself at the NRA’s expense. He disputes the claims.
In his book, Powell — who until his firing earlier this year was seen by some as heir apparent — gives a scathing critique, likening LaPierre to a con man and accusing the NRA of fueling “a toxic debate by appealing to the paranoia and darkest side of our members, in a way that has torn at the very fabric of America.” Perhaps most surprisingly, he came out in support of some measures pursued by gun safety groups. “I’m neither the villain nor the hero of this story,” he writes. “Instead, I feel like I’m kind of a pilgrim who lost his way, who abandoned his principles and lost his footing, for a time.”
Arulanandam, the NRA spokesperson, called Powell’s book “a fictional account of the NRA, period.”
In an interview, Powell said Brewer was confident that he could use the case against Cuomo and the DFS, which would allow him to depose state officials, as a stick to beat back James’s investigation. “He would hold that as an ace card, ‘Hey, I’ve got that over James,’” Powell said. “It was a completely flawed strategy and he completely underestimated the attorney general.”
By March 2019, Brewer was hailing what he called a “significant development” in his representation of the NRA: A federal judge had ruled that the gun group could depose former DFS Superintendent Maria Vullo. “We are anxious to discover all of the facts and bring them into open view,” he said in a statement, “to benefit the Association and the First Amendment.” Twenty months later, however, Brewer has yet to depose Vullo, according to filings in the case.
The same month that Brewer brought the case against Cuomo and the DFS, he sued an insurance brokerage that had worked with the NRA on Carry Guard. In a settlement with DFS, the brokerage agreed to cut ties with the NRA; now, Brewer alleged that the insurance company had violated its contract with the gun group. In September 2018, a judge booted Brewer from the case for failing to disclose that he’d been fined $177,000 by a Texas court in 2016 for allegedly trying to tamper with potential jurors in a wrongful-death suit. Two months later, the brokerage and the NRA moved jointly to dismiss the case.
(Brewer had appealed the $177,000 ethics fine and in April of this year, the Texas Supreme Court vacated the sanction, finding no evidence that he had acted in bad faith.)
Next, Brewer sued Ackerman McQueen, the NRA’s longtime marketing and public relations firm, which had forged the gun group’s public identity. The Trace has detailed the extent to which the NRA was entwined in questionable financial relationships with Ackerman and allowed the firm to drive costs and consume cash — criticisms that parallel those now aimed at Brewer’s firm.
Brewer is married to Skye McQueen Brewer, daughter of Angus McQueen, who led Ackerman from the 1980s until his death in July 2019. According to a sworn statement submitted in the Ackerman dispute by Revan McQueen, Angus’ son and Ackerman’s chief executive, “Brewer threatened to have Angus and me indicted by the Department of Justice.” (In response to a question from The Trace, Brewer said the threat allegation was false.) A week before Angus McQueen died, Revan McQueen wrote that his father, “told me to protect our family from Brewer who he believed would stop at nothing to attempt to destroy his family.”
Two months earlier, the NRA had sued Ackerman in Virginia state court, alleging that the marketing firm was “withholding information material to the NRA’s not-for-profit governance and its stewardship of its members’ donations.” The NRA filed two more lawsuits against Ackerman in Virginia. All three are on hold, pending resolution of a fourth lawsuit that Brewer filed against Ackerman in August 2019 in a federal court in Texas.
Two months ago, a judge denied Ackerman’s request to have Brewer disqualified from that case, though he is barred from appearing at a hearing or trial. In a blow to the NRA, the judge also dismissed a number of the group’s most damning claims, including those alleging fraud and conspiracy by an Ackerman subsidiary and breach of fiduciary duty by Ackerman executives.
Even before Brewer’s first lawsuit against Ackerman, unease over his growing influence and massive fees was causing schisms inside the NRA and would help spur an exodus from the organization that included the group’s president, Oliver North, who was ousted from his post in April 2019 following a face-off with LaPierre. North had sought an audit of Brewer’s billing. Three board members who had also demanded an audit resigned in August 2019.
Brewer filed an action in New York the same month, seeking to attend James’s deposition of North. He lost. But in October 2019, a judge awarded Brewer a minor victory in another case, ruling that the NRA was not responsible for North’s legal bills. In yet another New York case, this one seeking a ruling that North was not protected by the state’s whistleblower statute, a judge in October halted the proceeding over the Brewer firm’s objections.
The same day James filed her complaint, Brewer sued her in federal court, claiming the case was concocted and an effort by the Democratic “political machine” in New York “to harass, defund and dismantle the NRA because of what it says and what it believes.” The complaint alleged that James conspired with Everytown for Gun Safety, which advocates for stricter gun laws, to contrive a basis for legal action. (Everytown’s nonpolitical arm provides grants to The Trace. Our list of major donors is here and our policy on editorial independence here.) Brewer asked for an injunction that would block James’s case against the NRA. The judge has yet to rule.
Zachary Clopton, a law professor at Northwestern University who specializes in complex litigation and civil procedure, said federal courts are generally reluctant to intervene in state cases, particularly those brought by attorneys general. He said that the judge hearing James’s lawsuit will be more concerned with whether she can prove her allegations than her motives.
“The charge is that this is political?” Clopton asked. “She’s an elected official. Of course her work is political.”
As expected, the NRA has used its legal battles with Cuomo and James to energize its members and raise money — a necessity given how the fight has drained the organization. At an NRA board meeting in January, LaPierre said that legal trouble wrought by “the power of weaponized government” had cost the group $100 million in 2018 and 2019, according to audio obtained by National Public Radio. Financial statements show legal, audit, and tax costs of $74 million for the two years, during which the NRA reported total spending of $676 million.
In a March memo to employees, LaPierre announced layoffs and other cost-cutting measures. He blamed “extraordinary challenges” brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to sworn statements by Ackerman executives filed in the company’s dispute with the NRA, LaPierre has repeatedly said that Brewer alone can keep him out of prison. LaPierre sees Brewer as his lifeline, Powell told The Trace, and Brewer knows that his standing at the NRA is due to LaPierre. “He was always worried,” Powell said, “‘Does Wayne have my back?’”
If the NRA is to overcome its crisis, Powell said, the bond between LaPierre and Brewer must dissolve. “The reality is that he has been representing Wayne LaPierre,” he said, “not the NRA.”
The NRA fired Powell early this year after alleging that he abused his expense account. Powell’s attorney has said his client made compensation for the expenses, which only drew attention after Powell had pointed to problems at the NRA. Powell has said the NRA presented him with an $850,000 nondisclosure agreement at the time he was let go, which he rejected.
According to Powell, who says he is willing to cooperate with James, Brewer initially seemed committed to cleaning up the NRA and bringing the group into compliance with nonprofit law and its own internal policies. He succeeded cosmetically, Powell told The Trace, but there was no evidence at the time Powell left that deeper governance issues had been addressed. Given the NRA’s current predicament, Powell said, it’s evident that Brewer has not delivered on his promises: “I think he underestimated the dysfunction and corruption at the NRA and overestimated his game.”
Arulanandam disputed the criticism, saying, “Mr. Powell was effusive in his praise of NRA leadership and the Association’s mission — right up until the day he was fired. He has now reversed course on every position he ever took during his time with the NRA.”
In August, LaPierre arranged for individual counsel in James’s case. LaPierre’s attorney is P. Kent Correll, who 15 years ago worked in Brewer’s New York office. Financial records from 2014 identify Correll as a partner and general counsel to a development group that has sought to transform a Bronx armory into the Kingsbridge National Ice Center, a massive skating and hockey destination. Lobbying disclosures show Correll representing the group in 2018. Brewer represented the group as recently as 2016, according to court records and news clips.
Correll, who declined to comment for this story, practices civil law. As The Wall Street Journal has reported, the Internal Revenue Service is investigating LaPierre for tax fraud, so in addition to Correll, LaPierre may need a criminal defense attorney.
“The reality is that he has been representing Wayne LaPierre, not the NRA.”Josh Powell, former NRA chief-of-staff
Correll is not the only attorney linked to Brewer who has landed on the NRA payroll. After LaPierre fired the board counsel in April 2019, William “Wit” Davis got the job. Davis was general counsel at FLIR Systems, a manufacturer of thermal-imaging equipment, while Brewer represented FLIR in lengthy litigation with defense giant Raytheon Technologies. These moves don’t violate any standard of conduct for lawyers, but speak to Brewer’s influence.
A month ago, Brewer filed a request with the federal Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation, which can consolidate proceedings when plaintiffs in multiple jurisdictions are making similar claims. Brewer wants to merge four cases, including those involving Ackerman, a major NRA donor who accuses the group of defrauding members, and the suit that alleges James is motivated by political hostility. Experts in complex litigation said the panel is unlikely to look favorably on the request, which asks that the suits be heard in Texas, Brewer’s turf.
Tait, the NRA member who ran for a board seat this year, said switching to a new firm at this point would waste time and money. He said he’d like Brewer to seek a speedy and fair resolution in New York so that the NRA can stop paying huge sums for “the sins of the past.”
“At some point in these pleadings, somebody needs to stand up and say, ‘Hey, Who represents the members?’” Tait said. “Let’s figure out how we make this right… let’s reach a solution where the government’s interests and the organization’s interests are addressed.”
On November 11, Alabama attorney George C. Douglas, Jr., who claims to represent several NRA members, wrote to Judge Joel M. Cohen, who is hearing James’s case. Citing state law on dissolving nonprofits, Douglas argued that James must notify the NRA’s 5.5 million members so that they can be heard before the case continues. He also called for Brewer’s removal because of alleged conflicts, some stemming from his representation of LaPierre in other litigation.
“There is a significant and obvious risk,” Douglas wrote, “that Brewer’s professional judgment on the NRA’s behalf will be adversely affected, both by Brewer’s own interest in shielding its billing from independent review and recovery by the NRA and by Brewer’s duty to LaPierre.”
Should Cohen order James to notify NRA members of her lawsuit, Douglas wrote, “it is reasonably likely that many NRA members would seek disqualification of Brewer’s firm and an order directing the NRA to retain independent counsel in this matter before it proceeds.”
In responses to Douglas filed last week, James’s office and Brewer’s firm argued that Douglas lacks legal ground to intervene and that his call to notify members is based on a misreading of the law. James’s office did not address whether Brewer should be disqualified, while his firm argued that the NRA members Douglas claims to represent are “misguided” as to its role and “cannot stand in the shoes of the ‘client’ for disqualification purposes.”
In an affidavit responding to Davis, NRA President Carolyn Meadows said LaPierre is recused from a committee handling legal strategy. Committee members include Meadows, Cotton, and NRA Second Vice President Willes Lee, who are all considered LaPierre loyalists.
Correll, in his response, noted that Brewer’s firm stopped representing LaPierre in the case involving the major donor on September 30, when claims against LaPierre personally were dismissed. He also stated that he, rather than the firm, represents LaPierre in the Ackerman litigation. Correll did not mention that the change in counsel occurred last week.
LaPierre, in an affidavit, said, “I understand that there may be claims and defenses available to the NRA in this matter, or related matters, which situate the NRA adversely to me individually.” Should their interests diverge, LaPierre continued, it has been understood and agreed that he would get his own legal counsel and Brewer’s firm would continue to represent the NRA.
“Indeed,” he said, “this was my desire as CEO: my paramount concern has always been that [Brewer Attorneys & Counselors] remain as counsel to the NRA, especially in connection with any disputes involving the New York State Office of the Attorney General.”