Former NRA #2: The Organization Is “All Smoke and Mirrors”

As chief of staff to the NRA’s CEO, Wayne LaPierre, Joshua Powell was de facto number two. Having been dismissed over allegations of financial misconduct, he is confronting his former employer with accusations of corruption and political extremism. He speaks with Michel Martin about his new book, “Inside the NRA.”

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CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: Now, as we’ve just been discussing, this wave of sports activism has been in response to racially motivated violence. And central to that issue, of course, is guns. The NRA has successfully politicized gun control in America for decades. But the all powerful organization is now fighting for its own survival, and its newest adversary comes from within its own ranks. As Chief of Staff, the NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre, Joshua Powell was the organization’s de facto number two. But after being dismissed over allegations of financial mistakes, Powell is now taking on his former home. He is speaking to our Michel Martin about his new book, “Inside the NRA,” which accuses the organization of corruption and political extremism.

MICHEL MARTIN: Thanks, Christiane. Joshua Powell, thank you so much for talking with us.

JOSHUA POWELL, AUTHOR, “INSIDE THE NRA”: And thanks for having me on, Michel.

MARTIN: The two main criticisms that you have in the book is, one, is financial misdealings. You say this is a bloated bureaucracy. It’s actually run terribly as a business. And then the second criticism is the political extremism that you’ve alluded to here. But I want to take those separately. I mean, the first is the financial misdealings are with New York’s Attorney General Letitia James is investigating. In fact, she’s investigating the calling for the NRA to be disbanded, in part because of the way its business operations run. So let’s take that first and tell me what is it that you objected to? What is it that you saw as briefly as you can?

POWELL: Yes. So let’s unpack that and you’re absolutely right. You know, me coming in there, the association, with this idea of modernizing operations, which would have downstream effects on other parts, was really what I was looking at. And in many regards, that’s just it was real, like basic blocking and tackling business practices. And what I quickly uncovered, you know, over the course of a few months was, really what had gone on is there — that you had, you know, dozens and dozens, and dozens of relationships with vendors that really came in the form of, you know, no big contracts, automatic escalators, you know, that none of which were there were any metrics assigned to, deliverables assigned to them. And it became, as you start to peel back the covers a little bit more, it became very obvious that, you know, there was just a ridiculous amount of waste and fatten (ph) this day, produced nothing whatsoever. And, however, trying to, you know, peel that away and fix that movement was an incredibly challenging, you know, endeavor to take on. But —

MARTIN: Well, give an example. Give an example. A lot of what’s gotten attention in the media has been the kind of Wayne LaPierre, the executive vice president. He’s kind of like the face of the NRA for a lot of people, the public face of the NRA for a lot of people, you know, charging off his expensive suits to the organization staying in is incredibly expensive hotels. You’ve talked about at one point being chastised because you booked into kind of a mid-priced hotel. And you were told no, we don’t stay there. We stay at the Ritz, move your room, that kind of thing. That’s kind of the stuff that’s gotten a lot of attention. But like what — is that the core of it people just spend wildly on like whatever? Powell: Well, that’s, I think, the kind of stuff that appeals to the media. But in terms of the absolute wastage of member’s juice. It comes in the form of not running a business anywhere near the way it ought to be. And looking at actually, you know, what is the output that I’m getting for spending the dollar. And there was a complete, you know, there just was zero philosophy in how that was even contemplated. And you realize, like, over — however it happened over all these years, this bureaucracy was built up, you know, at the top, you know, Wayne driving this thing really fed this entirely corrupted, you know, machine that would, , you know, wrote checks at will to pay for a whole bunch of stuff that, you know, a, they never gotten and, never had any bit of difference. And —

MARTIN: Like, give me an example. Like board members, you’re taking people on the board, it’s technically an unpaid position, but then they have all of these, what, contracts, to provide services as vendors. Like give an example.

POWELL: Sure. So, you know, you can look as simple. It is — it’s all the way from how much you actually, the silliness of the structure of contracts to — for the folks that dial members and raise money where you’re paying twice as much as you ought to pay. Well, if that’s — if you’re paying this vendor $30 million a year, and frankly, you can do it for half the price, and you add that up over 10 years. You’re talking about $150 million of wastage. And that little story, you can take and run across the entire operation from, you know, buying, you know, the little widgets that you would give to members, that you completely overpaid for. Why? Well, you have to bid things out, right? You just need to make sure you’re paying for it, paying a fair market value on top of the fact that, you know, Wayne’s, you know, out there trying to buy a $6 million house in South Lake, Dallas and sort of living this billionaire lifestyle on the backs of members. It’s — when I say, it’s horrifying — what I saw was horrifying, shooting or horrifying the gun owners. That’s exactly what I was referring to. For those of us who are not members of the organization.

MARTIN: Why is this an issue of public concern? Is there any way in which the NRA’s financial dealings are connected to the political extremism that a lot of people identify and that you have now, that you have now, as an insider, have now identified.

POWELL: Well, that’s exactly right. So, you have the wastage as a member of the NRA. And then, you have the absolute human toll that’s taken place because of the, you know, the how the NRA is tactically went about raising its money over the years. And what they’ve ended up creating is an organization. There’s well over 100 million gun owners in this country, and there’s only 5 million NRA members, arguably of which only a couple million actually give money every year. And that by definition is the fringe of the fringe. And what has happened is that, it’s created a situation where it’s a microcosmo of our politics today. The louder and the more extreme you are, the more you’re heard, and it’s really easy to raise money on that fear. You know, the idea that Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden are going to magically come in, in the middle of the night, and black helicopters, and take their guns with the jackbooted thugs behind them, and then you send out mail into that, and it’s easy to raise money that way. And then what happens, the real toll is the fact that now you have this extreme organization of views period that is, the association of no, no matter what, and who ends up really paying the price. The folks that, you know, the mothers that are scared to death for their children to walk home from school in Chicago or Baltimore, you know, the mass shootings that we can’t seem to find any answers for. And we don’t have a scenario now where anybody is really looking for real solutions to solve these problems.

MARTIN: You know, I think a lot of people remember the NRA as being mainly connected to the shooting sports training organization. It’s kind of hard to get a shooting sport without encounter — it’s hard to participate in a shooting sport without encountering the NRA.

POWELL: That’s right.

MARTIN: So how did you become this kind of cultic It’s kind of hard to get a shooting sport without encountering it it’s hard to participate in a shooting sport without encountering the NRA. So how did it become this kind of cultic, you know, closed off place where the only people they talked to, with the people they already agreed — who already agree with them?

POWELL: I don’t think it’s any more complicated that it became easy to raise money on — the more that, you know, Wayne could pour gasoline on a fire and say outlandish things and make, you know, troted out Dana Loesch and say media loves mass murder, or the only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun, which is absurd on its face, and people ate it up. And it was easy to raise money off of pouring gas on fire in this, you know, extreme marketing, if you will. And I guess, really not a lot — it’s really not much more complicated than that. But what you end up though with is, remember, this is a member-owned association. So you end up with the extreme wagging the tail of the dog. You can’t find a gun owner in this country that has a problem with taking a background check to purchase a firearm. You’d be incredibly challenged to find anybody that’s got a problem with that. Yet, within the membership and within the board of directors, that would be pretty — you’d be committing heresy, if you will, to have that kind of view. So because of the way that this, it became very, I, personally, and – – there was never any, like, great big strategic thinking. I think it just be — it sort of morphed into this in a very Trumpian kind of way, test it out and it works, you know, I’ll go do more of that. And here we are, you know, fast forward 30 years later. And I think it really took a turn, you know, after Sandy Hook.

MARTIN: Well — but can I just ask you, where were you in all of this and who were you in all of this? I mean, Sandy Hook was in 2012. In fact, your book opens with Sandy Hook, the Sandy Hook massacre, where these babies were all killed. He massacred, at point blank range, in under six minutes and your book opens with that. Meanwhile, you’re hanging out at a steak house with your, you know, with your private equity bros, you know, trying to, you know, put together a deal to roll up a bunch of gun companies. And you don’t even seem to react to it. And then — and I have to tell you, you went to the NRA after Sandy Hook. So you went there with the knowledge that Wayne LaPierre was pouring gasoline on the fire, that he was saying things like the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good — is with a good guy with a gun, which you say in the book is patently false. So you knew all of this going in. So where were you in all that?

POWELL: It’s not a very pretty picture of me during that time period. I don’t like that guy. That’s the guy you look at and you kind of like, I really hate that guy. But that was a person in my me, that was swept up and, you know, that, side if you will. And the energy of it being intoxication of, and I was certainly as guilty as anybody of stirring that lemonade. I, obviously, wasn’t working within the association at that time, but I was involved in, you know, all sorts of discussions with folks inside of there, including Wayne, including the ad agency. And so, you know, I’m no saint in this book, right? Let’s be straight. I’m definitely, you know, not the same in this story, but I’m not the villain either. You know what had really happened in my time there was I rather than being able to modernize the association, apply modern businesses practices to it, I became, you know, a lawyer for all practical purposes with the objective of saving Wayne LaPierre. And my real turning point with all this was last summer when I went home to Michigan and I spent the previous week, you know, working with the attorneys, the PR guys, you know, defending off these blue suit allegations. And I think at the time it was this house situation, that Wayne was trying to buy a $6 million house in Dallas through NRA. And I met a very old friend of mine, (inaudible). He said, hey, I got my new membership card just like your dad got. And I just looked at myself and said, good Lord, what are you doing? This is not you. You know, this is a guy — this guy is giving you $45 and it’s certainly not for you to defend, you know, buying a $6 million house in the NRA’s back. So I would say I certainly had an arc of a change in my life thinking along the way.

MARTIN: But why do you think that is, though? What was fun about it? Like, why do you think you did?

POWELL: I think, part of it is — was the, you know, was a real big fight, right? And this was like the — it was the epitome of political fights in the country. And being involved with that level was very interesting and very, you know, very intoxicating. I also believe very strongly in the second amendment, rights, so obviously part and parcel of my life. And I would say that, you know, I sort of allow myself to get sucked into that to a large degree.

MARTIN: You say that the NRA is really smoke and mirrors. You say that, you know, rather than being a well-oiled data-driven lobbying machine, we were stuck back in the dark ages. There was no war room at the NRA, no coordinated effort between our lobbyists, no data machine that would, you know, kick out metrics were top notch political lobbying shop would have. And you say, you even quote your former boss, Wayne LaPierre, as saying to you on many occasions, Josh, come on, you know, it’s all smoke and mirrors, the Wizard of Oz, just pull back the green curtain. How is that possible? Because you also point out that the NRA is like one of the big three along with, you know, one of the biggest kind of lobbying shops in the in the country. So how is that possible?

POWELL: Well, it’s possible because the — what folks don’t seem to understand is that that, the second amendment vote happens regardless of the NRA’s participation. And this is like a few topics in this country. This is one that people are single kind of minded in the way that they vote on this. And they do turn it out. And —

MARTIN: So you say there’s a court — there’s a cadre of voters who no matter what the NRA says, has an extremist position and will vote that position, and that’s their kind of preeminent position going to the polls. Is that what you’re saying? And they’re enough to make a difference.

POWELL: Well, there — if you got 30,000, you know, folks in every congressional district that will flip the ladder in that regard, yes, that is a powerful thing. But that doesn’t have anything to do with the National Rifle Association. That has to do with those folks. And that is the — and there isn’t a lot of money that is actually put into campaigns, 2016 was an exception with Donald Trump. But, you know, typically campaign cycle, a campaign cycle, the amount of money that the NRA puts into someone’s campaign and its payments.

MARTIN: How then do you say that the NRA has pushed this extremist position? If you’re saying that there’s a contract with people who would vote that way anyway, how is the NRA responsible for taking this to the nth degree to becoming, as you said, the group of no?

POWELL: Because folks have bought into this Wizard of Oz, what they miss is the fact that there are 100 million gun owners in this country, there’s 96% of them that are in favor of, you know, passing a more substantial background check law. And what they end up doing is end up basically pandering all the way to this extreme fringe of things. And if they understood that, hey, there’s a much bigger voting block here, and I’m not going to get, you know, blown out in this election because of the NRA, I think — and once folks starts to understand how that actually works, it ought to give them a little bit more faith to have some courage when it comes to dealing with some of this stuff. And that’s exactly what Wayne says to me when he would say to me, hey, this is all smoke and mirrors. That’s exactly what he was referring to. And it’s easy to take credit for something when you’re sort of writing the back of the way.

MARTIN: Well, you know, of course the NRA has a very different view of these matters. As you would imagine, they’re not very happy with you at the moment. We received a statement from them. It says let’s get this straight, a self-confessed wrongdoer who was terminated for cause is now glorifying himself talking books, and blaming everyone else. The facts are that Mr. Powell was fired for cause after his financial abuse was discovered by the accounting staff with the NRA. This is a fictional account of the NRA period. And just recently as last year, he was a full throated supporter of Mr. LaPierre, the NRA and the second amendment advocacy. Today, he’s been ousted as someone who abused the NRA for years, directed contracts to family members using NRA money to fly his family to Palm Beach and other abuses. And then, they go on to say, the NRA is in great financial shape and showing record support, and moving on. So basically, they say you are the person who committed these financial improprieties, which is why you got fired. There was also another investigation saying, you know, last year, in August of last year, suggesting that you had been the target of a sexual harassment complaint for which a settlement was made. So that’s what they say. So what do you say to them?

POWELL: It’s pretty simple that, you know, what the NRA has been threatening — when it became clear that I was leaving that organization, they’ve been threatening me, harassing me since late last fall. This is just an extension of that. I would expect them to do it more and more, and more, What they’re leaving out of this entire statement from my friend, Andrew, is the fact that they had offered me $850,000 in non-disclosure agreement, which I tore up and walked away from. And so, this idea that they’re conveniently leaving the house, the conversation, and, of course, they’re going to smear me, they’re doing everything they can possibly do to denigrate myself, my family, anybody around me. I’m the last person in the entire planet, but they would like to having a conversation about this with you or with authorities, or anybody that has any oversight in this association. So Am I surprise, of course not. I think it’s going to continue 100 percent. That’s the —

MARTIN: Are you cooperating with the New York attorney general? Are you in discussions with her about these matters that you talked about in the book?

POWELL: Well, obviously I can’t talk about, you know, ongoing discussions with litigation, but certainly we are cooperating in her probing in NRA.

MARTIN: I want to go back to where you open the book. You open the book with the horrific massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary. And you talk about just what a fraud period that was, just how awful it was, but nothing happened after that. Why is that?

POWELL: It wasn’t absolutely the — it was absolutely horrific day. And I think all of us felt, seeing the President saying that something is going to change this time. And obviously, it didn’t. If you think back since Sandy Hook, literally the only thing that folks have ever — that the only solutions that are ever thrown out on the table are a universal background check, a law, which is fine. A couple red flag laws, but there isn’t a lot of really substantiated deep analysis and research into what is going on here, and how are we going to fix this.

MARTIN: In part because the NRA forced the writer into a Congressional appropriation that basically banned the National Institutes for Health from doing this research.

POWELL: Well, that’s right. That’s absolutely right. There’s been a big fear over the years of taking on the NRA. And I think that the tides have shifted. I also think that in many regards, it’s a big black paper tiger (ph). And I think that there’s a way forward. What I don’t or won’t be helpful is, if we get a reaction, you know, from the other side that sort of is really kind of over, like over pushes this way. And I think for this to really work, you have to have both sides buy into it.

MARTIN: Joshua Powell, thank you so much for speaking with us.

POWELL: Thank you very much. I enjoyed it.

About This Episode EXPAND

Christiane speaks with former British Ambassador to the U.S. Kim Darroch about his new memoir. She also speaks with Billie Jean King about her influence on and off the tennis court. Michel Martin speaks with former NRA senior strategist Joshua L. Powell about his new book “Inside the NRA,” which accuses the organization of corruption and political extremism.