Today, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington requested the Internal Revenue Service open an examination into the finances of the National Rifle Association after the group failed to disclose more than $33.5 million it spent on political activity over six years. CREW also called on the Federal Election Commission to audit the NRA’s campaign arm, the NRA Political Victory Fund (NRA-PVF), and its lobbying arm, the NRA Institute for Legislative Action (NRA-ILA), after the group apparently violated federal election law by soliciting donations for the NRA-ILA that went instead to the NRA-PVF.
Between 2008 and 2013, the NRA-ILA, an internal division of the NRA, reported to the FEC and in annual financial statements that it spent more than $33.5 million on political activity. However, for each of those years, the NRA stated on its Form 990 tax return that it did not engage in any political activity at all, and the group did not once file a Schedule C disclosing its political expenditures. This failure to disclose political activity appears to violate federal law and, if it was intentional, could violate several criminal statutes. The NRA blamed the failure to disclose its political activity on a “clerical error” but did not express any intention to amend its Form 990 returns or file Schedule Cs.
“The idea that the NRA, one of the most sophisticated and influential advocacy organizations in the country, doesn’t know how to fill out a simple tax return just does not ring true,” said CREW Executive Director Noah Bookbinder. “The NRA should be transparent about its multi-million dollar investment in politics. It is highly disturbing that the NRA failed to disclose these political activities in its tax filings and then tried to simply wave off such a serious failure to meet its legal obligations.”
The NRA-ILA reported to the FEC nearly $11 million in independent expenditures and member communications expressly advocating election or defeat of candidates for federal office between 2008 and 2013, and disclosed on annual financial statements prepared by an independent auditor spending more than $22.5 million on fundraising and administrative expenses for its political action committee, NRA-PVF, during the same period. All of these expenditures were for political activities that needed to be reported on the organization’s tax filings but were not.
CREW also called on the FEC to audit the NRA-PVF and NRA-ILA because it appears these groups may have solicited donations in violation of federal election law by failing to disclose to donors that their money would be used for political purposes. The NRA also appears to have violated federal election law by soliciting donations from the general public, which it is prohibited from doing as a member organization, and by failing to disclose the employer and/or occupation of its contributors.
In an April 2015 report for Yahoo News, reporter Alan Berlow described making several donations through a website branded with banners for the NRA-ILA, after which he received thank-you emails from the NRA-ILA. Mr. Berlow’s credit card statements, however, showed that his donations went to the NRA’s political action committee, the NRA-PVF. These solicitations appeared to violate federal election law. In response to Mr. Berlow’s report, the NRA blamed the misallocated donations on a “coding error” affecting roughly $125,000 worth of donations.
“The NRA appears to have deceived both the federal government and its own donors, in violation of federal laws and rules,” Bookbinder said. “It is supposed to be clear who donors are giving to and where their money is going.”
“The appropriate agencies need to subject the NRA’s finances to full scrutiny to determine whether the organization made a surprising series of separate, innocent mistakes, or simply isn’t bothering to follow the rules about disclosing its political activities,” Bookbinder continued.