Politics

Senate Democrats accuse NRA of promising access to US officials in exchange for Russian business

Leigh Ann Caldwell and Mike Memoli
Senator Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon and ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, speaks during a hearing with Robert Lighthizer, U.S. trade representative, not pictured, in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, March 12, 2019.
Anna Moneymaker | Bloomberg | Getty Images

The results of a congressional probe into the National Rifle Association's ties to Russia paints a picture of NRA officials providing Russian officials access to American elected officials in exchange for lucrative business opportunities.

The investigation, conducted by Senate Finance Committee Democrats who released a report on their findings Friday, found that top officials at the NRA used the organization's financial resources — largely collected by member dues — to curry favor with two Russians, Aleksander Torshin, the deputy governor of the Central Bank of Russia, and his deputy Maria Butina, who said they had access to top Russian officials.

The investigators focused on a trip in 2015 in which Butina and Torshin led a delegation of NRA officials to Moscow. Former NRA president David Keene and his wife Donna Keene organized the trip with the promise of new business opportunities by the Russians, including access to a Russian arms manufacturer that was under U.S. sanctions.

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Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, the ranking member of the Finance Committee, launched his probe in February 2018 just as federal investigators were exploring potential links between Kremlin-linked individuals and the powerful gun lobby. The final report from former special counsel Robert Mueller's team did not specifically address the NRA's relationship with Moscow.

Wyden alleges that the NRA might have violated numerous tax laws by ignoring the parameters associated with non-profit tax status. He is calling on the IRS to investigate.

"This report lays out in significant detail that the NRA lied about the 2015 delegation trip to Moscow. This was an official trip undertaken so NRA insiders could get rich — a clear violation of the principle that tax-exempt resources should not be used for personal benefit," Wyden said in a statement.

The NRA is currently undergoing a crisis in its ranks as infighting and federal investigation into its finances have rocked the organization. The New York State Attorney General is currently investigating the organization for allegations that it violated its tax status. Butina is currently serving an 18 month sentence for conspiracy to act as an agent of a foreign official.

The probe was limited in scope. It relied on the NRA to voluntarily hand over documents and the Republicans on the Finance Committee opted not to cooperate with the investigation.

The staff for Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles Grassley reviewed the documents obtained by Wyden's staff and issued a separate report stating they found that the $6,000 in question to pay for the trip to Russia is "relatively insubstantial" and the evidence "does not raise concerns that the NRA abused its tax-exempt status purposes" when NRA officials traveled to Moscow in 2015.

"The Minority report reads more like a political document directed at an organization well known in U.S. politics to be despised by Democrats for its advocacy for Second Amendment rights," the Republican response says.

The Democratic investigation did not reveal the kind of expansive scheme by Russia to launder millions into the U.S. election campaign through the gun lobby, as McClatchy had reported was being explored by federal investigators. Documents obtained by Wyden's team showed more limited financial relationships, though; in one case, the gun lobby would offer payments to Butina as a reimbursement for expenses she said she incurred while hosting the NRA delegation in Moscow, despite the group later saying the trip was not official business.

When Butina told the Keenes that a senior Russian delegation would only meet with the group if the "head of the most powerful political organization in America" attended, Donna Keene fretted in one email to then-NRA President Allan Cors that his cancellation "will risk – I think completely burn – all the inroads NRA volunteers have worked on so hard for so long," while also potentially hurting Torschins's "pro-American career."

"We've worked for 7 years to build trust with the Russians," Keene added.

Peter Brownell, an Iowa native and ammunition company executive who was set to succeed Cors as NRA President, would ultimately attend in place of Cors. Another email obtained by the committee showed a conservative operative linked with the Mueller probe promising Brownell that he would "benefit greatly" from the trip by building connections with Russian arms manufacturers.

The congressional probe also found that the NRA provided both Russians "broad access to events" over a three-year period, where both could have met top GOP figures including presidential candidates.

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