Maria Butina, the fetching Russian “gun rights” advocate and accused spy, has left the country, but her close ties to the National Rifle Association continue to reverberate in the face of continuing state and federal investigations.
The NRA, which spent $55 million to elect Donald Trump in 2016, was a “foreign asset” for Russia leading up to the election, according to a U.S Senate investigation led by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.
Although the findings have been largely overshadowed in the media by Trump’s 2020-election Ukraine scandal, the implications are just as far reaching and may ultimately lead to the White House.
Much of the focus of Wyden’s 18-month investigation centers on NRA actions to give Butina and her handler, Russian businessman Alexander Torshin, unprecedented access to GOP officials, even their ties to the Kremlin were known.
Separately, The attorneys general of New York and the District of Columbia are investigating other allegations of wrongdoing by the gun group that extend beyond its involvement with Russia.
In New York, state Attorney General Letitia James is reportedly investigating the group’s financial dealings, potentially putting its non-profit tax-exempt status at risk.
The investigation began last April after Oliver North, best known for his role in the 1080’s Iran-Contra scandal, resigned as NRA President after a losing a power struggle with NRA CEO and executive vice president Wayne LaPierre.
Even President Trump criticized the group at the time, saying it needed to “get its act together.” But he has since capitulated to the group.
Last week, he dropped his support for any new laws addressing mass shootings before the 2020 election.
The New York AG’s investigation can be uniquely threatening to the NRA, according to NPR’s Tim Mak.
“The NRA is chartered in New York. And the New York attorney general’s office told NPR that it had already begun issuing subpoenas,” he said on a recent broadcast.
As such, the AG’s office has the power to sue the nonprofit for violating its tax-exempt status. The move could lead to disbanding its board of directors or forcing the group to repay money wrongfully obtained.
It could also force organizations to cease operations or dissolve based on financial misconduct.
In December a year ago, Trump’s namesake charitable foundation agreed to dissolve under court supervision as part of a New York AG lawsuit.
Trump was charged misusing its funds for his 2016 presidential campaign and his businesses.
The lawsuit also seeks to recoup $2.8 million and ban Trump and his three eldest children, Ivanka, Don Jr. and Eric Trump, from leadership roles in any other New York charity.
James has been wrangling with NRA lawyers in court for the past several months, including efforts by the group to intercede in a planned deposition of North.
“They lost,” James told MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow in August. North is now scheduled to be deposed, if he hasn’t already, about the NRA’s finances. More than 90 current and former officials have been interviewed, James said.
In a rancorous court hearing in Manhattan this past week, NRA lawyers tried to block the NY AG’s subpoena for records from advertising agency Ackerman McQueen. The agency worked extensively with the NRA on many of its caustic public relations campaigns.
New York State Supreme Court Justice Melissa Crane said she’d rule later on the state’s request to force compliance with the subpoena.
For his part, Trump has called the state’s investigation “illegal.”
In the District of Columbia, Attorney General Karl A. Racine, opened a new NRA investigative in July, issuing subpoenas to the gun group and a large affiliated charity.
The DC investigation focuses on the N.R.A Foundation, the gun group’s charitable arm. At issue is whether charitable funds were actually used for charitable purposes.
The NRA has poured more than $200 million in the the foundation since 2010, according to The New York Times.
The investigation is focusing “financial records, payments to vendors, and payments to officers and directors,” according to the AG’s office.
Questions have been raised about insider self-dealing and campaign spending violations among other financial irregularities.
the NRA, for example, covered a portion of the cost of then-NRA vice president Pete Brownell’s trip to Russia, where he discussed personal business opportunities, according to the Senate investigation.
Tax-exempt organizations are barred from using funds for the personal benefit of its officials or for actions significantly outside their stated missions, according to the Senate report.
Among other alleged irregularities, LaPierre billed the organization for $275,000 in clothes from Zegna, a luxury men’s wear boutique in Beverly Hills, The Times reported.
LaPierre also billed the group for $267,000 in personal expenses, including flights and limousine service for trips to the Bahamas, Florida, Nevada, Budapest and an Italian lake resort, according to documents leaked on line. He earns more than $1.4 million a year from the group.
The 77-page Senate report centers on Butina and Torshin.
Top NRA officials were aware of their links to the Kremlin even as they sought to work more closely together under the guise of promoting gun rights.
The officials traveled to Russia in 2015, in part, to help convince the Kremlin that Torshin had high level contacts with the group, according to an email written by Butina to NRA staff members.
Butina also suggested she might be able to set up a meeting between them and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In return, NRA officials paid for and facilitated Torshin and Butina’s introduction to American political organizations and provided access to GOP party officials attending NRA events.
The NRA also facilitated meetings with officials of the Council for National Policy, the National Prayer Breakfast, the National Sporting Goods Wholesalers Association and Safari Club International, according to the report.
“NRA resources appear to have been used to pay for membership and registration fees to third party events for [Torshin and Butina] as well as to arrange for transit to and lodging for many of those events throughout 2015 and 2016,” the report states.
Butina was also interested in meeting GOP elected officials. “Is there a list of U.S. governors or members of Congress that might be present at some time during the [NRA] annual meeting?” she wrote to staffers in another email.
“The totality of evidence uncovered during my investigation, as well as the mounting evidence of rampant self-dealing, indicate the NRA may have violated tax laws,” Wyden told NPR.
“The IRS needs to examine these findings and investigate other publicly reported incidents of potential lawbreaking.”
The NRA branded the report “politically motivated,” and claimed the 2015 Moscow trip was not officially sanctioned by the group.
Senate Republicans said any infractions uncovered by the report were minor and should not affect the NRA’s tax-exempt status.
“This 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,” said NRA lawyer William A. Brewer III.
The conclusions of the Senate investigation could have legal implications for the NRA, Wyden says.
Tax-exempt organizations are barred from using funds for the personal benefit of its officials or for actions significantly outside their stated missions. The revelations in the Senate report raise questions about whether the NRA could face civil penalties or lose its tax-exempt status.
The National Rifle Association called the report “politically motivated,” and suggested that the 2015 Moscow trip was not an official NRA trip.
“An avalanche of proof confirms that the NRA, as an organization, was never involved in the activities about which the Democrats write,” said NRA lawyer William A. Brewer III, responding to the report.
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