Allegations of corruption at the NRA were first made public nearly five years ago, but audio published this week shows exactly how leaders hid lavish expenses from the group’s membership.
On Thursday, reporter Mike Spies posted a leaked recording of a conversation between top executives at the NRA and its former media contractor Ackerman McQueen. The executives can be heard discussing how best to keep extravagant purchases from making it into public reports. They were particularly concerned with news getting out that NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre often uses private jets to get around.
“We just have to be careful because Wayne wants to get through this whole year saying he hasn’t used private aircraft,” then-NRA-treasurer Woody Phillips said. “He just doesn’t want to be seen getting off the plane — anywhere.”
So, the group concocted a plan to have Ackerman McQueen issue a Platinum American Express card to NRA director of advancement Tyler Schropp.
“Well that’s easy,” William Winkler, Ackerman’s chief financial officer, said. “As far as I’m concerned, we can give Tyler an Ackerman Amex. And do it that way.”
“Oh well that’s the way to do it then,” Melanie Montgomery, an executive vice president at Ackerman McQueen, responded. “Give him an Ackerman card.”
“Yeah,” Phillips said. “That’s the easiest way to do it, and for the most part, it’s going to be stuff that [LaPierre’s assistant] books because it’s stuff with Wayne.”
“That aspect of it’s very easy,” Winkler said. “It’s really the limo services and the hotels that I worry about. He’s going to need it for the hotels especially.”
The group agreed that Schropp would be responsible for billing non-controversial expenses through the NRA while shuttling the more problematic ones through Ackerman’s credit card.
“Most of what he’ll do, he’ll do like he does here, where it’ll just be he’ll fill out an expense report for us, he’ll have cards for that too,” Phillips said of Schropp.
“Woody did that,” Montgomery noted. “He said, ‘Can you do some, you know, that goes through the NRA system, then just your high, well, the stuff you do with Wayne, do through Ackerman.’”
Ackerman would then bill the expenses back to the NRA without itemizing what they were connected to, a common practice between the two sides for decades. The contract between Ackerman and the NRA would continue to balloon for years, reaching upwards of $40 million in 2017 alone, before eventually crashing back down to earth in a public and legal battle that pitted each side against the other. In that legal fight, which the NRA eventually settled by paying Ackerman an undisclosed sum, the gun-rights group admitted it was common practice for Ackerman to bill it without a full explanation of what the money had been spent on.
The scheme laid bare in the audio recording is at the center of New York Attorney General Letitia James’s (D.) case against the NRA and its leadership. In fact, the tape shows the group discussing a similar arrangement with Ackerman employee Tony Makris, who spent years shepherding around celebrity board members like Charlton Heston and Tom Selleck. They were apparently concerned he’d been spending too much on luxury travel in recent years and were planning to ask him to cut back.
“In the case of Tony, now that he’s married, does anyone know what he’s doing about the Beverly Hills Hotel?” Phillips said. “Because that would cut out a lot of this cost if he’s not doing that. I think without it being a special occasion, we’d have a hard time paying for that.”
But the group decided that spending on these kinds of extravagant travel arrangements would be worth it in the end if the combined team of Makris and Schropp could land big enough donors or celebrity supporters. In fact, they were comfortable with an overall increase in that kind of spending.
“Some of that stuff, with Tyler being in the Office of Advancement, may go up a little bit, because, you know, they’re gonna kind of partner up,” Montgomery said. “And, if it works, then that’s a good day.”
Schropp’s Ackerman Amex has come up before in the years since allegations of impropriety first surfaced. He defended the use of the card in a 2021 deposition by saying it was for “donor privacy reasons, and Wayne LaPierre privacy and security reasons.” LaPierre, who has admitted knowing some of his expenses were routed through Ackerman in this way, has also repeatedly used privacy and security as justification for nearly all of his questionable luxury travel expenses.
James has claimed in legal documents Schropp used the card to book rooms at the most luxurious resorts. Her suit claims he routinely spent $1,500 a night at destinations including the Four Seasons, Ritz-Carlton, Beverly Hills Hotel, and the St. Regis. But that was just the tip of the iceberg in what James said was more than $64 million worth of misappropriated funds over the years.
Spies, who started the firestorm the NRA is currently engulfed by publishing other leaked documents detailing corruption back in 2019, posted the audio in a piece for left-leaning outlets ProPublica and The Trace. NRA outside counsel Bill Brewer said the call is demonstrative of how the group was defrauded by some insiders.
“The tape has not been authenticated by the NRA but, if real, we are shocked by its content,” Brewer told Spies. “The suggested contents would confirm what the NRA has said all along: there were certain ‘insiders’ and vendors who took advantage of the Association. If true, it is an example of a shadowy business arrangement — one that was not brought to the attention of the NRA board.”
However, the conversation in the recording dates to the summer of 2009, and the NRA kept up its cozy relationship with Ackerman McQueen for another decade before the two sides eventually blamed each other for the malfeasance. Additionally, Schropp remains employed at the NRA and Woody Phillips received a consulting contract after being forced out of his role as treasurer. LaPierre, too, remains in power, with his recently announced resignation not going into effect until the end of the month.
Ultimately, the NRA ended up reporting some private jet travel on its 990 that year despite the efforts to work around that requirement. It claimed the private flights were used when “multiple events when reduced airline schedules precluded other options,” an explanation it would stick with from then on that has since been challenged by the corruption suit. The practice of issuing NRA executives credit cards from outside contractors was also ended in 2019.
But none of that has prevented the actions now most acutely outlined in the new audio tape from pushing the NRA to the brink of extinction, whether as the result of legal action or the membership losing faith its dues are being wisely spent.