- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 28, 2019

INDIANAPOLIS — The National Rifle Association, which began its annual meeting last week with optimism and enthusiasm, leaves Indianapolis amid unprecedented chaos, with President Oliver North announcing his abrupt departure and new legal scrutiny of the group’s finances and inner workings.

Mr. North was decrying the “disarm America” movement to an adoring crowd on Friday, but on Saturday he was announcing — by proxy — that he would no longer be the group’s president after tensions with Wayne LaPierre, the group’s executive vice president, boiled over.

Even board members were left talking in apocalyptic tones.

“Every day has been a surprise, OK?” said Joel Friedman, an NRA board member from Nevada. “What’s absolute today may not be absolute tomorrow. … The only thing that’s guaranteed in life is we’ll all die one day.”

The NRA’s board of directors is slated to meet Monday to discuss next steps, and rank-and-file members said they want answers after Mr. North said he was concerned that alleged financial improprieties by top NRA officials could endanger the group’s coveted nonprofit status.

That fear was further fueled when New York Attorney General Letitia James launched an investigation into the group in the middle of the four-day convention.

“There is seemingly some infighting, and as a member I just want to get to the truth of what are the issues, what is the financial misfeasance and what conflicts exist, and then I think we can internally address them to the extent there are any,” said Joshua Prince, a lawyer from Pennsylvania.

First Vice President Richard Childress stunned members over the weekend when he read a letter from Mr. North in which the retired Marine Corps lieutenant colonel announced he was effectively stepping away from his position.

In the letter, Mr. North cited a series of news stories alleging financial mismanagement by senior NRA officers. He said he tried to raise concerns but was rebuffed.

“If true, the NRA’s nonprofit status is threatened,” said Mr. North, who was announced as the group’s president last May. “There is a clear crisis — it needs to be dealt with immediately and responsibly so the NRA can continue to focus on protecting our Second Amendment.”

An explosive conflict between Mr. North, a TV host who rose to prominence after his involvement in the Iran-Contra scandal and retains strong support among conservatives, and Mr. LaPierre had been simmering.

Mr. LaPierre said in a letter to board members that Mr. North and Ackerman McQueen, the group’s longtime advertising firm, were threatening to release allegedly damaging information about the group if Mr. LaPierre did not resign from his position.

He countered that Ackerman was paying Mr. North millions of dollars annually — the position of NRA president is typically unpaid — and said the NRA only wanted to know what it was getting out of the relationship.

“AM did not respond directly, but appears to have responded indirectly by trying to oust me,” Mr. LaPierre said.

The NRA recently sued Ackerman McQueen, saying the agency was slow to produce documents that the gun group needed to meet its legal obligations, including details of the side agreement with Mr. North.

The firm, which has called the lawsuit frivolous and inaccurate, did not respond to requests for comment.

Mr. LaPierre did not directly address Mr. North’s announcement in his own speech to members on Saturday and instead vowed to press forward and fight New York in a high-stakes lawsuit arguing that state officials improperly discouraged banks and insurance companies from doing business with the NRA.

“This case, what we’re dealing with right now, is perhaps the most important First Amendment case in the history of the United States of America,” Mr. LaPierre said.

Some members viewed Mr. LaPierre as the problem as the NRA engaged in an at-times raucous debate on a resolution calling on him to resign. Members ultimately voted to refer the matter to the board.

Marion Hammer, a board member, former president and influential lobbyist from Florida, urged fellow members to avoid feeding an attack “from within.”

“No family should air its laundry in public, and this is an internal matter,” she told The Washington Times afterward.

Ms. Hammer said she has known Mr. LaPierre for more than 30 years and that he “fights for, lives and breathes” the Second Amendment and the NRA.

“That’s where his loyalties lie,” she said. “I question Col. North’s loyalties. As an employee of a vendor of the National Rifle Association, his loyalty appears to be to that vendor and not to the organization.”

Mr. Friedman also defended Mr. LaPierre and said he expects that the executive vice president has enough support to retain his post.

“If we’re a $300 million organization, [the] man is grossly underpaid,” he said. “Wayne LaPierre got $1.4 million — OK. Wayne LaPierre, in the last few months, brought in $44 million.”

The internal pressures may be overshadowed by external forces such as Ms. James, the New York attorney general whose office has launched an inquiry into the group’s finances.

The NRA will fully cooperate with any such inquiry, William A. Brewer III, an attorney for the NRA, said in a statement.

“The NRA is prepared for this, and has full confidence in its accounting practices and commitment to good governance,” Mr. Brewer said.

Before the major tumult broke, members got a chance to hear from President Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, Mr. LaPierre and Mr. North on Friday at the annual leadership forum hosted by the NRA’s legislative-lobbying arm.

“I’m a champion for the Second Amendment and so are you. It’s not going anywhere,” Mr. Trump told an enthusiastic crowd inside Lucas Oil Stadium. “It’s under assault. It’s under assault but not when we’re here. Not even close.”

Mr. North told the crowd of his ambitious goal to nearly double the NRA’s membership rolls of approximately 5.5 million by the 2020 general election.

Some members were puzzled over Mr. North’s subsequent departure, saying they liked his enthusiasm and thought he was a good fit for the job.

“I thought he was going to be another Charlton Heston,” said Raymond Schneck, 68, from Florida, referring to the legendary actor who served as the group’s president in the late 1990s and early 2000s. “He was enthusiastic about it, and that’s what I thought we needed because a lot of the presidents in the past didn’t have the enthusiasm Charlton Heston had, and I thought he was going to bring that.”

Mr. Schneck also applauded Mr. LaPierre for the job he’s done but said it might be time for some “younger blood” in that position.

But John Klusman, a longtime NRA member and retired police officer from Chicago, said Mr. LaPierre had won him over in recent years after some initial skepticism.

“He’s stodgy and people like to make fun of him, and I was opposed to him, but he’s done a great job,” said Mr. Klusman, 71. “He’s very effective. I’m not saying I’d go fishing with the man, as they say, but he’s doing a fine job.”

He said Mr. North probably did a fine job as well during his brief time as president, but he dismissed the president’s position as largely ceremonial and much less important than Mr. LaPierre’s in terms of the group’s operations.

“Charlton Heston, Oliver North,” he said. “It doesn’t seem to make much difference in the running of the organization, so I don’t really care too much.”

• David Sherfinski can be reached at dsherfinski@washingtontimes.com.

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