D.C. watchdog group calls for feds to probe alleged election and tax law violations by NRA

·Chief Investigative Correspondent
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The National Rifle Association admits having made a mistake on its tax forms in previous years. (Photo: Larry Downing/Reuters)  

A watchdog group today asked the Internal Revenue Service to investigate the National Rifle Association for failing to disclose $33.5 million in political expenditures on its tax returns over a six-year period.

In a letter to the IRS and a separate one to the Federal Election Commission, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) cited a recent story in Yahoo News as evidence of what it believes are multiple violations of campaign finance and tax laws by the country’s premier gun-rights group.

A spokeswoman for the NRA called the charges “baseless and nothing more than a PR stunt” coming from an organization with its own political agenda. The spokeswoman, Jennifer Baker, acknowledged that the NRA had incorrectly filled out its tax forms in previous years when it wrongly checked a box stating that it had not engaged in any “direct or indirect political activities.”

But she said this was a “clerical error” made by the NRA’s accounting firm, adding that the mistake had no practical consequence and had since been corrected. She also noted that the NRA had separately reported to the FEC that it spent millions of dollars in “independent expenditure” political ads.

“No one can contend that the NRA was trying to hide that we are engaged in political activity,” she said. “The assertion that this represents fraud on the NRA’s part is absurd.”

But Noah Bookbinder, the executive director of CREW, said that the NRA’s explanation for the mistakes on its tax forms “just does not ring true.”

“This is not a mom-and-pop shop,” Bookbinder said in an interview. “This is a sophisticated, multimillion-dollar organization with many layers of review. It’s hard to believe they simply missed this year after year.”

The CREW complaint was prompted by an April 21, 2015, Yahoo News story by independent journalist Alan Berlow disclosing that $1 contributions he made to the NRA’s lobbying arm, the Institute for Legislative Action, through the organization’s website were misrouted to its political action committee, known as the Political Victory Fund, or PVF.

After the story was published, the NRA acknowledged that a “coding error” had caused about $125,153 in contributions to be misrouted over a four-month period in 2014. Baker said this had involved about 2,000 individual contributions but constituted only a tiny fraction of the $50 million that the NRA’s lobbying and political arms spent during the 2014 election cycle.

Baker also said the coding error had already been corrected before the story was published; on April 28, a week after the story ran, the NRA amended its reports to the FEC and returned the contributions from its political fund to its lobbying arm.

But CREW in its complaint to the FEC raised questions about the NRA’s contention that it had internally corrected the error, noting that neither arm of the NRA “took any public action or made any public statements about the improperly directed contributions until after” the Yahoo News story ran.

In addition, CREW asked the FEC to investigate other potential errors on the NRA’s campaign finance reports. While conducting its own review of those reports, CREW said it found multiple instances in which the gun group failed to report the employer and occupation of the donor, in apparent violation of federal election law requiring all contributions of $200 or more to include such information. In its October 2014 filing with the FEC, for example, the group said that two contributions of $5,000, one for $1,200, three for $1,000 and 14 for $500 had no information about the occupation or employer of the donors.

Baker said that, in conformance with FEC policy, the NRA made its “best effort” to get this information from the donors by sending them form letters asking for it. But the donors failed to respond, she said, a “commonplace” occurrence in the political world.

“You can’t force people to give you that information,” she said.

A spokeswoman for the FEC declined to comment on the CREW complaint. But she pointed a reporter to FEC policy that states that political committees will be deemed in compliance with election law as long as they make their “best efforts” to obtain information from donors — either by letter, by email or orally.

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