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NRA Sues Advertising Firm for Alleged Media Leaks, Coup Attempt

By betsy.woodruff@thedailybeast.com (Betsy Woodruff)
Dominick Reuter/AFP/Getty

The NRA is suing the advertising firm that it has worked with for decades–again. This time: for allegedly leaking NRA information to reporters. The complaint, filed late Wednesday afternoon in Virginia Circuit Court against advertising firm Ackerman McQueen, alleges that the firm shared sensitive information with outsiders in an effort “to tarnish and ultimately destroy the public image of the NRA and its senior leadership.”

The litigation also alleges that the advertising firm tried to foment “a (failed) executive coup” in an effort to end inquiries into its business practices. It requests $40 million in compensatory damages from the advertising firm.

“Over the past year, even as it withheld important documents and information from the NRA, AMc [Ackerman McQueen] readily shared snippets of confidential and proprietary materials with hostile third parties, including the news media–in a series of sordid, out-of-context ‘leaks’ engineered by AMc to harm its client,” the complaint reads.

An Ackerman McQueen spokesperson defended the firm.

“It is a sad day for NRA members that their leadership is more focused on attacking partners than fighting for freedom,” the spokesperson said in a statement. “Once again the National Rifle Association leadership’s new lawsuit is another reckless attempt to scapegoat Ackerman McQueen for the NRA’s own breakdown in governance, compliance and leadership. We have done our job to protect the brand for decades and have continued to do so despite shameless and inaccurate attacks on our integrity and our personnel by a leadership group that is desperate to make this a story about anything other than their own failures.”

The NRA already sued the firm earlier this year, demanding that it provide internal records about its work for the gun rights group. That lawsuit didn’t demand any money; this one does.

The litigation highlights an ugly rift between the firm and the association. During a phone call on Sept. 19, 2018, per the litigation, a lawyer for the firm told an NRA attorney that Ackerman McQueen “views the relationship as adverse.” The suit alleges that the firm “scapegoated the NRA’s outside counsel” and refused to provide “basic information” about its dealings to NRA executives.

The lawsuit also details communication between Oliver North and an aide to NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre, in which North allegedly threatened to release embarrassing information about LaPierre if he didn’t leave the NRA. At the time, North was both president of the NRA and an employee of Ackerman McQueen, per the litigation. The suit says North made the threat in his capacity as an employee of the firm. It was after this alleged episode that LaPierre, instead of leaving, wrote a letter to NRA board members claiming North was trying to blackmail him.

“As became widely publicized, LaPierre prevailed–and AMc’s coup attempt failed,” the suit says.

The suit also says the NRA has been receiving media inquiries about LaPierre’s “travel, wardrobe, and other expenses incurred in connection with AMc projects, based on AMc’s advice, or on trips with itineraries crafted by AMc.” And it blames the firm for those leaks. The suit says the firm “directly or indirectly” leaked to The New York Times , The Wall Street Journal , Rolling Stone , and The Daily Beast.

LaPierre’s wardrobe has become a flashpoint. Earlier this month, The Wall Street Journal reported –citing leaked documents–that LaPierre billed Ackerman McQueen over $500,000 for clothes, travel, and other expenses. The lawsuit, meanwhile, says LaPierre made these purchases “[b]ased on AMC’s advice” and over fifteen years. Once the NRA started asking the firm about expenses that appeared questionable, the firm became “evasive and hostile,” the suit alleges.

“As AMc continued to stonewall the NRA’s requests for documents and tensions between the parties rose, the NRA was contacted with increasing frequency by journalists acting on purported ‘leaks’ relating to matters on which AMc had worked,” the suit says. “The contents of these ‘leaks’ reflected a malicious, out-of-context use of the NRA’s confidential information, with an apparent intent to damage the NRA.”

And, the suit adds, “multiple confidential sources” said the advertising firm was leaking.

Later, instead of giving the records to the NRA leadership, the advertising firm “conspired with others” to share out-of-context portions of the records with members of the NRA’s board. The goal, per the suit: “to sow false impressions regarding the NRA’s spending and lend support for a possible executive coup.”

“As became widely reported, AMc’s attempt to seize control of the NRA brutally failed,” the suit says.

As of press time, the advertising firm has not entered court filings rebutting the NRA’s allegations. As the NRA’s legal fights metastasize, so do its legal bills. Leaked documents authenticated by The Daily Beast indicate that the NRA’s outside lawyer, Bill Brewer, has charged the gun group more than $24 million since signing on with them last year. That number came in a letter North wrote raising concerns about the NRA’s leadership. Outside legal ethics experts who reviewed North’s letter told The Daily Beast it raised serious concerns, and that the bills were “off the charts.”

Charles Cotton, who heads the audit committee of the NRA board, has said North's claims are incorrect and that the NRA is pleased with Brewer's work.

“Importantly, the relationship has been viewed, vetted, and approved,” he said in a statement.

The NRA has been engaged in a showdown against Ackerman McQueen, an advertising firm which has worked for the gun group for more than three decades, since the first lawsuit was filed on April 12. In addition to demanding that Ackerman McQueen turn over information about its bookkeeping practices, that complaint also alleged that the firm used bad information to push the NRA to hire it to start NRATV–the internet-TV network that has drawn significant controversy.

The other lawsuit also claimed that Oliver North, who was deposed as the group’s president just days after the filing came out, deceived the NRA about his relationship with the advertising firm. According to the suit, North neglected to reveal to the NRA that the advertising firm both hired him on salary and paid him on contract for work he did for NRATV. It wasn’t the only drama in the lead-up to the meeting; shortly before, the internal NRA fight boiled over at the group’s annual meeting in Indianapolis last month, which pitted NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre against North. LaPierre emerged victorious and North left early.

This is a developing story and will be updated.

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