Fur Shows and Machine Guns: An Exclusive Look Inside the NRA's Now-Defunct Board Meeting in Alaska

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Wayne LaPierre, NRA vice president and CEO attends the NRA annual meeting of members at the 148th NRA Annual Meetings & Exhibits on April 27, 2019 in Indianapolis, Indiana. A statement was read at the meeting announcing that NRA president Oliver North, whose seat at the head table remained empty at the event, would not serve another term. There have been recent reports of tension between LaPierre and North, with North citing financial impropriety within the organization. Scott Olson/Getty

On the eve of the National Rifle Association's reshuffled board meeting — the first since an organizational upheaval in the spring which saw the ouster of former NRA President Lt. Col. Oliver North — the inner-workings of the gun-rights group are coming into clearer focus as it prepares for an entrenched battle on Capitol Hill over new firearms restrictions.

The abrupt decision to relocate the NRA's board meeting to Washington, D.C., at a cost of $100,000 thrust a spotlight onto the group's political tradecraft. And the NRA's now-defunct plans for an Alaskan homecoming, details of which were elicited by Newsweek, help reveal how the group's patrician approach to governance is being upended by more panicked political circumstances.

According to a revised itinerary that Newsweek obtained outlining the Anchorage, Alaska, board meeting — plans that were years in the making before they were shelved under unclear circumstances — NRA directors were set to be treated to several events sponsored by the Alaska Gun Collectors Association.

The association, while not technically a non-profit, bills its mission as educating the public about gun ownership and preserving the state's Second Amendment tradition. Jeremy Wise, who sits on the group's board of directors, told Newsweek that the organization's governance and finances are completely separate from the NRA.

"We do not receive NRA funds," he explained. "We sponsored the events just because we're supporters of the NRA, that's why. We were just inviting them out."

He said the outings the association had planned were sponsored by specific donors, allowing them to leave untouched the general operating budget which is largely devoted to educational grants for college-going students.

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A photo of Wayne LaPierre, the head of the National Rifle Association, decorates a wall at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center during the NRA's annual convention on May 6, 2018 in Dallas, Texas. LOREN ELLIOTT/Getty

Up until a few weeks ago, as the NRA board was set to descend onto Anchorage for one of its triannual meetings, board members were to be welcomed with a reception at O'Malley's on the Green, a restaurant situated on the Anchorage Golf Course, for a service of light appetizers.

A couple days following the reception, board members were invited to attend a fur show that was sponsored by David Green & Sons. An employee familiar with the arrangement told Newsweek that no notable expense was made organizing the show.

"It's just a courtesy we do. For an event, we usually come and bring 20 of our coats, and the client generally supplies us with a few models." she said. "We didn't lose money here, maybe only on potential sales.

The Alaska association was also sponsoring an annual banquet to which NRA directors and committee members were invited. Wise explained that the banquet would take place with or without the NRA, and that his group lost no money scaling down some of their events or canceling contracts after the NRA's change of heart.

"We didn't lose any money changing these plans," he said. "Everyone on our end that we worked with was more than understanding of the situation."

Wise's group had also planned to take NRA directors on one final outing: a trip to a nearby range to shoot machine guns.

The striking difference between the elaborate Alaska venture and the more staid Washington, D.C., gathering — Congressman Don Young, who sits on the NRA's board, told Newsweek that tomorrow's events won't "see as much sideline activity like we had planned for Alaska" — has highlighted the gun-rights group's predicament as a leading advocate for Second Amendment rights under siege by scandal and legal troubles.

"A lot of nonprofits, when they have a board meeting, they're all about business," Greg Witkowski, a senior lecturer on non-profit management at Columbia University, observed.

At least one NRA director privately expressed concerns about the alleged extravagance of the Alaska trip. In a May email obtained by Newsweek, the director warned of how the recreational nature of the gathering could be construed by NRA opponents should details be leaked to the media.

"In light of our present financial shortcomings, the blood-thirsty jackals of the progressive press, always nipping at our heels will have a heyday with this one," he wrote to NRA leadership.

Newsweek exclusively reported that the NRA was bearing a $100,000 expense to cancel its Alaska plans and reconvene in D.C. instead. Part of the cost, according to internal NRA emails, would result from contract cancellation fees. It is not immediately clear from where that expense would have originated if the Alaska gun association was picking up so much of the tab.

While nothing in the Alaska itinerary raises flags of the sort that has engulfed the NRA in recent months, Marc Owens, former director of the Exempt Organizations Division at the IRS, noted that the group's plans were indicative of a trade association's activities more so than those of a social welfare organization, which is how the group is classified under federal tax-exempt rules.

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A picture of Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre is seen at the National Rifle Association (NRA) booth during CPAC 2019 February 28, 2019 in National Harbor, Maryland. Alex Wong/Getty

"What you describe is the kind of activity that often occurs around a trade show, a big meeting or conference of manufacturers of some item," Owens told Newsweek. "From that perspective, the NRA looks like a trade association. The selection of events is typical of what you would look for with wealthy people."

(Owens currently represents March For Our Lives, a gun control advocacy group born after the Parkland massacre.)

The NRA has two board members who hail from Alaska. Wayne Ross, who also sits on the Alaska Gun Collectors Association's board, won't be attending the D.C. meeting. Young, already in D.C. for the current congressional session, will be at the meeting, though he expected only about 40 of the group's 76 board seats to be represented.

The circumstances of how the decision was made, and the reasoning behind it, are still murky. Newsweek reported that the NRA's secretary and general counsel John Frazer directly addressed board members in late August about the reconfigured plans.

"I'm writing to inform you that due to the developing legislative situation at the federal level, our fall board meeting is being moved and rescheduled," Frazer said in a letter to the board and executive council on August 27.

NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam confirmed to Newsweek that it was the NRA's executive committee which formally acted to move the meeting. While under NRA bylaws it is the prerogative of board members to determine the time and place for their meetings, the executive committee does have the authority to act when the board is not in session.

However, the bylaws require that board members are given adequate notice before any executive committee meeting. This rule is in place to prevent the committee form usurping the full authority of the board. But it was not apparently following that principle in this case. Frazer's letter is phrased as an announcement to the board, rather than a forewarning.

Related to other governance issues, board members have previously complained that they were not being kept in the loop or that their role under NRA bylaws as overseers of NRA management was not being respected.

At the time the announcement was made, Ross told Newsweek that he found out about the cancellation through Frazer's letter, along with the rest of the board. He said that he was told the decision was made two to three days prior to that. If the executive committee convened to make a relocation decision, board members should have been aware that this was happening, at least that is what is required by the NRA's bylaws. The revelation that its board was taken by surprise adds evidence to allegations from reform-minded activists that the NRA is skirting its own rules to accommodate the political desires of management.

The NRA did not immediately return a request for comment about this story.

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