Wayne LaPierre, for decades the fiery public face of the National Rifle Association, has seen off opposition inside the organization over its finances and direction to win re-election as chief executive of America’s notoriously influential gun lobby group.
The move, announced on the NRA magazine’s American Rifleman website, came during a closed-doors meeting of the group’s board of directors on Monday. Despite the internal disquiet, LaPierre ran for the post unopposed.
For the past two decades, the NRA has faced criticism from its members that its leaders had become corrupted by the millions flowing into its coffers. The criticism has included allegations of self-dealing and excessive personal spending. The pressure has now increased as New York’s attorney general has begun an investigation that could threaten the group’s tax-exempt status.
The turmoil boiled over on Saturday when Oliver North, a conservative stalwart and former Reagan aide implicated in Iran-Contra, was ousted from his role as NRA president after trying to force LaPierre out.
It was unclear if the conflict that has roiled the 5-million-member organization would still lead to significant changes in its operations. NRA board members did not immediately return messages for comment; their phones had been confiscated before entering the meeting room.
The board also elected a slate of leaders, including Carolyn Meadows as president. She bypassed the person who would ordinarily have been next in line to become president.
Not everyone in the organization was thrilled. “There’s been a few occasions where I wanted to burn my life membership. Seeing Wayne LaPierre back at the helm is bringing those feelings back,” said one member in a Facebook thread that followed an angry open letter from a former NRA employee.
The NRA’s charter was originally filed in New York, giving authorities there broad latitude to investigate its operations. The newly elected New York attorney general, Letitia James, has made no bones about her dislike of the NRA, calling it a “terrorist organization”.
“I never thought this thing would ever get to the level it got,” Joel Friedman, an NRA board member since 2002, told the Associated Press before the 76-member board met to decide whether organizational changes were needed.
Just last year, an investigation by the previous New York attorney general led Donald Trump’s charitable foundation to dissolve amid allegations it was operating as an extension of Trump’s business empire and presidential campaign.
The prospect of scrutiny by New York authorities led the NRA last year to hire an outside law firm and to ask its vendors to provide documentation about its billings.
The NRA in recent weeks sued Ackerman McQueen, the Oklahoma-based public relations firm that has earned tens of millions of dollars from the NRA since it began shaping its fierce talking points in the past two decades. The NRA accused Ackerman McQueen of refusing to provide the requested documents.
Ackerman McQueen turned the NRA from an organization focused on hunting and gun safety into a conservative political powerhouse. The firm created and operates NRATV, an online channel whose hosts often venture into political debates not directly related to firearms, such as immigration and diversity on children’s TV.
That transition has frustrated some members, such as the former Republican congressman Nate Bell, who lamented on Twitter how the organization had “abandoned its foundation of single issue advocacy and become a boot licking apologist for Republicans”.
Bell continued: “I’m seriously considering a run for NRA board next year. There’s a leadership crisis in the org and there are far too many yes men on the board.”
The NRA has faced financial struggles in recent years, losing a combined $64m in 2016 and 2017, and that has prompted some to question whether the large sums spent on public relations and NRATV are worth the money. In its lawsuit, the NRA said some of its members have questioned NRATV’s weighing in on “topics far afield of the second amendment”.
According to LaPierre, North – who is allied with Ackerman McQueen – tried to strong-arm him into resigning by threatening to expose damaging information about the NRA’s finances – specifically, allegedly excessive staff travel expenses – as well as sexual harassment allegations against an employee and accusations that LaPierre had charged tens of thousands of dollars in wardrobe purchases to his expense account.
North’s own contract with Ackerman McQueen raised alarm bells within the NRA about the costs and possible conflicts of interest. LaPierre, in a letter to the board, noted that of the 12 TV episodes Ackerman McQueen promised to deliver, only three have aired.
NRA insiders have described an operation with warring factions, a place where some are compensated richly, driving expensive cars and wearing fancy clothes, while most rank-and-file are paid so little that they hold down more than one job and risk being ostracized or fired if they question expenses.
“Right now, it looks like the NRA has become like a self-licking ice cream cone,” Allen West, a retired army lieutenant colonel, conservative commentator and relatively recent NRA board member said in a video interview with the website Tactical Rifleman. “A lot of money is being raised just to scratch the backs of certain – a cabal of cronyism.”
“We’ve got one shot to fix this, and we’ve got one shot to make it right, which means there probably does have to be some personnel leadership changes,” he said. “There also definitely has to be organizational reforms.”
Trump weighed in Monday in defense of the NRA.
“The NRA is under siege by Cuomo and the New York State AG, who are illegally using the State’s legal apparatus to take down and destroy this very important organization, and others. It must get its act together quickly, stop the internal fighting, and get back to GREATNESS — FAST!” he tweeted.
Associated Press contributed to this report