Wyden Slams Republican FEC Commissioners for Blocking Probe of NRA, Possible Campaign Finance Violations

Senator Ron Wyden blasted the Federal Election Commission (FEC) on Friday after the agency's Republican commissioners blocked an attempt to fully investigate the National Rifle Association (NRA) over reports that Russia may have used the gun-rights group as a conduit for its election interference efforts, and possibly in contravention of campaign finance law.

"A foreign adversary interfered in the 2016 presidential election and the response from Republicans at every level, whether it be President Trump, congressional Republicans, or now the Republican appointees on the Federal Election Commission, has been to bury their heads in the sand or actively obstruct getting to the bottom of what happened," Wyden said in a written statement.

"It's inexcusable that Republican commissioners would block an investigation into whether Russian money was funneled through the National Rifle Association to help President Trump. The blatant partisanship is appalling, undermines our democracy and leaves us vulnerable to continued interference in 2020," he continued.

In particular, the FEC was considering whether to further probe if Alexander Torshin, a senior official at the Central Bank of Russia, and Maria Butina, his former assistant, may have violated the ban on election contributions from foreign nationals by funneling money through the NRA.

Wyden had previously written to the FEC in May after news reports documented links between Torshin and the NRA. Those reports spurred Wyden, as ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, which has oversight of non-profit organizations such as the NRA, to conduct a correspondence with the gun-rights group.

Maria Butina, leader of a pro-gun organization, speaks on October 8, 2013 during a press conference in Moscow. STR/Getty

In a statement coinciding with his May letter to the FEC, Wyden said the NRA failed to fully comply with his oversight efforts and so he was referring the matter to the federal election watchdog.

In July, two weeks after the Department of Justice unsealed a criminal complaint against Butina on related charges of conspiring to act as an unregistered agent of Russia, Wyden sent another letter to the FEC urging them once more to take up the matter.

"In light of the additional facts that have surfaced as a result of these recent indictments, I urge the FEC to move quickly to determine whether a formal investigation is warranted," the July letter read. "If the Commission were to authorize an investigation, it could enforce its inquiries through the use of compulsory process in federal court, including through the issuance of subpoenas."

Ellen Weintraub, chairwoman of the FEC, excoriated her Republican colleagues for their contrary votes which resulted in a 2-2 tie on Friday, preventing the inquiry from moving forward.

"For the Republican commissioners to apply [this] approach to a matter of such national importance, and in doing so turn a blind eye to the possibility that a foreign adversary secretly funneled tens of millions of dollars into a presidential campaign, is to bring their obstruction to a new and breathtakingly damaging level," she said in a statement.

The House Ways and Means Committee, the oversight body in the House of Representatives with jurisdiction over non-profit organizations, has so far declined to launch a formal probe of the NRA, though it is under the control of Democrat Richard Neal.

One of the committee's members, Democratic Representative Brad Schneider, has taken it upon himself in his individual capacity to probe some the NRA's financial misconduct scandals that have destabilized the group this year.

In a statement to Newsweek, Commissioner Caroline C. Hunter said "Once again, Chair Weintraub rejected the advice of the FEC's lawyers but blames her Republican colleagues. Her statement is long on conjecture and short on the evidence and the law. She relies on an 'article' [published by] McClatchy written by the same individuals who inaccurately reported Michael Cohen was in Prague in 2016. The FEC is forbidden from investigating groups purely based on rank speculation."

This article was updated to include comment from the FEC.