WASHINGTON — The National Rifle Association acted as a “foreign asset” for Russia in the run-up to the 2016 election, and NRA insiders provided access to the American political system to advance personal business interests, a Democratic senator charged Friday in a new report.
The report by Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, also said NRA leaders may have violated tax laws that prohibit use of organization resources for personal benefit. The committee oversees tax laws that apply to the NRA as a non-profit organization.
“During the 2016 election, Russian nationals effectively used the promise of lucrative personal business opportunities to capture the NRA and gain access to the American political system,” Wyden said in a statement. “The totality of evidence uncovered during my investigation, as well as the mounting evidence of rampant self-dealing, indicate the NRA may have violated (U.S.) tax laws.”
In a statement Friday, the NRA called the report “politically motivated and contrived,” adding that “an avalanche of proof confirms that the NRA, as an organization, was never involved in the activities about which the Democrats write.”
Republicans said the report failed to show that NRA leaders abused the group’s tax-exempt status.
Based on an 18-month effort by the finance panel’s Democratic staff, the report found that NRA leaders “engaged in a years-long effort to facilitate the U.S.-based activities” of Russian nationals Maria Butina and Alexander Torshin.
Butina is serving 18 months in prison after admitting she covertly gathered intelligence on the NRA and conservative activists at the direction of Torshin, a former Russian lawmaker.
The report also claims that NRA insiders may have violated U.S. law by meeting with sanctioned Russian government officials and weapons manufacturers linked to the Kremlin in pursuit of personal business opportunities.
Responding for the gun lobby, NRA attorney William Brewer III said the report “goes to great lengths to try to involve the NRA in activities of private individuals and create the false impression that the NRA did not act appropriately. Nothing could be further from the truth.”
Wyden’s report comes as the NRA is engulfed in turmoil amid investigations of its finances, the ouster of top officials, and lawsuits involving a longtime marketing firm that helped shape its image as one of the most dominant forces in U.S. politics.
Long viewed as the most powerful gun lobby in the world, the NRA has been facing internal and external pressures over its operations and spending. Law enforcement authorities have launched probes that threaten its non-profit status and there has been a revolt by members questioning the group’s finances and leadership.
The group’s former president Oliver North, its longtime top lobbyist, and other high-ranking officials have left in recent months.
The revelations in the Senate report raise questions about whether the NRA could face civil penalties or lose its tax-exempt status. The attorneys general of New York State and Washington, D.C., are investigating NRA’s compliance with state tax laws.
The report focuses on a December 2015 trip to Moscow by a group of NRA leaders, including former NRA president David Keene and then-NRA vice president Pete Brownell, who later became president before stepping down in 2018. The trip, led by Butina and Torshin, included a promise of meetings with top Russian officials and business leaders. The NRA paid some expenses for the trip.
Despite denials by NRA leaders, “This was an official trip undertaken so NRA insiders could get rich — a clear violation of the principle that tax-exempt resources should not be used for personal benefit,” Wyden said. He called for the IRS to investigate the trip and other publicly reported activities of NRA leaders.
In addition, Wyden said the Treasury Department “needs to stop stonewalling and investigate whether Russian arms manufacturers are evading sanctions to do business in the United States.” Wyden asked Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control last year to investigate whether some Russian weapons-makers who met with the NRA delegation had evaded U.S. sanctions by using domestic shell companies. Treasury has not responded to his request.
The finance panel’s Republican chairman, Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, said the Democratic report fell short of establishing that NRA leaders took advantage of the group’s tax-exempt status.
“The minority report reads more like a political document directed at an organization well-known in U.S. politics to be despised by Democrats because of its advocacy for Second Amendment rights,” Grassley and other Republicans wrote in a statement Friday.
Based on the documents provided to the committee, Republicans find no wrongdoing by the NRA or its officials that would reasonably call into question the NRA’s tax-exempt status, the GOP response said.