Former Top NRA Executive Gives Tell-All Account Of Organization’s Excesses And ExtremesSeptember 12, 2020
Joshua Powell’s new book Inside the NRA is being released amid an avalanche of pro- and anti-Donald Trump tomes as we enter the final weeks of the 2020 presidential campaign.
But Powell’s book is unique among them, as it is an insider’s tell-all about the National Rifle Association, known for for its electoral power and lobbying sway, blocking even minimal efforts at gun reform.
Powell was a business consultant who had ties to the organization for a number of years before he joined in 2016 as the chief of staff to Wayne LaPierre, the longtime leader and public face of the organization.
Powell is still a staunch defender of gun rights and the Second Amendment, but he writes in his book that the NRA has lost its way — not just in taking extremist positions following the Sandy Hook massacre in 2012, when 20 children and six adults were killed in a horrific shooting at a Newtown, CT, elementary school, but for what he describes as financial mismanagement and corruption. He claims that membership money went to LaPierre and others to finance their lavish lifestyles, on everything from Rodeo Drive shopping sprees to private jet travel. Powell fell into it too: In one instance, he describes the feeling “like Ray Liotta walking into the Copacabana in the movie Goodfellas.”
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It’s especially relevant now: New York Attorney General Letitia James’ lawsuit filed last month, seeking to dissolve the organization, claims that top leadership sought to enrich themselves. Powell is one of the defendants, accused of violating the NRA’s expense policy and of conflict of interest, but he said that he will cooperate with her investigation.
The NRA, meanwhile, has been blasting Powell’s book, accusing him of financial impropriety before he was terminated for cause late last year. “This is a fictional account of the NRA, period,” a spokesman said in a statement.
Powell, though, said that the NRA tried to buy his silence, and he turned town a hefty severance package that was meant to keep him from blowing the whistle on the organization.
Deadline spoke to Powell earlier this week.
DEADLINE: A lot of the book is aimed at showing how membership funds are misused. You’ve described it as kind of like Goodfellas at certain moments. How so?
JOSHUA POWELL: When you’re taking people’s money and taking members’ money under the auspices of using all of it for the mission of the NRA, and you are hopping on private jets and working on $17 million retirement payoffs for yourself, that’s what I was referring to.
DEADLINE: It’s hundreds of million dollars over the years, as I understand it — that’s what you were talking about.
POWELL: Really what you’re looking at is decades of corruption in the form of no-bid contracts with automatic escalators. No deliverables behind them. No metrics behind them — an incredible waste of money. … Not only did that go on, but they turned into deals of friends of a friend’s and things like that, which aren’t a problem as long as what you’re paying for is the right price and you’re getting paid for it. In dozens of instances that just simply isn’t the case. And that’s on top of all the personal stuff … in terms of Wayne LaPierre’s own life, in sort of creating this billionaire lifestyle for himself. As the [attorney general’s] complaint states, they referenced a $17 million retirement contract. He said he didn’t remember it. Now I don’t know about you, but that’s a lot of money.
DEADLINE: Did the NRA’s financial problems drive the need to, as you put it in the book, “sell the fear”? In other words, that was a way to boost revenue if you can motivate donors with more extreme rhetoric.
POWELL: I think that that’s true. I also think that the irony of the NRA is it’s not this very sophisticated operation where you flip on a house of cards and see all this digital displays that are measuring all the messaging. It wasn’t that whatsoever. In fact, it was the opposite. Over a period of years, it just became very obvious that kind of pandering to the fringe and selling fear is, it’s easy to do. It’s profitable to do. And so the more you know, the more crazy you sound, the more gas you pour on the fire, the easier it is to raise money. It took me some time to frankly kind of really understand how all of that works. The reality of it is, there’s well over 100 million gun owners in this country and there’s only 5 million NRA members, so, by any example, that is the definition of fringe.
DEADLINE: The book starts at Newtown. Then, you had your own consulting business but already were involved in gun-rights issues.
POWELL: I was working with Cerberus. And I had lots of relationships around this topic. It was something I was very close to. Really what got me involved was I was very concerned, disturbed by all the shootings that had gone on in Chicago. I had been there for 15 years and sort of grew up there as a trader and hedge-fund guy. I thought there would be a better way to deal with this and fix it. So that’s sort of what got me have been involved in this, and I grew up as a shooter, and I shoot all over the world competitively and I hunt. I had an NRA sticker when I was a kid.
DEADLINE: Why did you describe Newtown as a turning point for the NRA?
POWELL: That event really changed the nature of the discussion, and it also pushed the NRA even more to the extreme answer — when you come out after that, and the answer is, “Well, the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” it’s pretty absurd, right? And it was wasn’t said accidentally. Wayne didn’t cart himself out there. He said that to pour gas on the fire, and of course the press went nuts. And that’s exactly what he wanted. I think a million members came on board at that point, it went from 4 [million] to close to 5 million members.
DEADLINE: You didn’t think so at the time that it was so absurd.
POWELL: I didn’t think that it was as absurd as I view it now, that’s fair to say. I will say this, in fairness, that there was a program that Wayne had talked about in terms of protecting schools and going in an looking at their security. Unfortunately, we live in a world where that makes a tremendous amount of sense. … I wanted to build a bigger, better, more constructive NRA. I was not only supportive of folks that want to protect themselves with a firearm, but also was very solution-oriented to address a lot of these gun crimes in this country. And to just say no wasn’t an answer, and 99% of the time, that is exactly the answer the NRA gave. Certainly that was one of the pieces and parts that I wanted to try and solve, and I was able to push it around the edges, but that’s about it.
DEADLINE: Right after Newtown, you described this kind of scramble [among gun-rights advocates], of going into a crisis mode, and that you even found it “oddly intoxicating.” And that was before you’ve kind of fully grasped the tragedy. Do you regret that?
POWELL: Well, it’s an interesting question. I certainly wouldn’t have agreed with myself back then, but I also think that going through an evolution on it is important, because it’s led me to feel as strongly as I do now. Do I look back and say. “You know, would I have said that?” or “Would I have responded exactly the way I did before?” Probably not, but it’s not like I had my hands on the switch, right? I was an observer. And so would I have observed it differently? Yeah, of course. You know, look, I’m not the hero of this book. But I am not the villain, either.
DEADLINE: The image we have of Wayne LaPierre that you describe in the book is different from the one we see on TV, which is kind of this firebrand. In the book, you describe him as almost this shy individual.
POWELL: That is 100% the case. Wayne is not, that’s all for show. That’s just a show. That’s a 100% act. And, in fact, it’s the complete opposite, which led to a lot of, frankly, the utter dysfunction. … There was no such thing as a staff meeting where everybody sat around in a room and understood what the hell we were doing here. And that is the irony of the place, that people viewed it as this big, you know, finely tuned machine, clipping away all these victories. That was not the case. And that’s also the myth of the entire place, and a misunderstanding that the NRA is responsible for turning out votes and victories, political victories. There are certainly examples where that’s the case to a degree, but the overarching point is that there are many people in this country who view their Second Amendment rights as their issue to vote on. They are literally one-issue voters. And they can be on both sides of the aisle. And I think that for Joe Biden to think the NRA is weakened, and those folks won’t turn out in in vote in the election this fall, is short-sighted.
DEADLINE: In other words, don’t equate the NRA’s financial troubles to a lack of political power.
POWELL: That’s exactly right. And it’s also part of the problem with this entire debate is that we end up, neither side of this is really talking about solutions to this problem. It’s all rhetoric. And that is huge frustration. If you said, “What’s my goal this book?” The ultimate goal is to get this conversation started to get onto real solutions to solve gun crime. And when you’re running out and talking about banning guns immediately — the AR-15 is less than 1% of all homicides in this country that are committed with an AR, with a rifle. In other words, if you’re trying to solve a problem, why start at the less than 1%? Because it’s a good soundbite. And on the other side of the aisle, you have the NRA screaming that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are these crazy socialists that are going to come in and their black helicopters at night and take their guns. And to some degree, I think they played into that, and I think that’s unfortunate.
DEADLINE: There is broad consensus on certain issues. You hear it from groups like Everytown for Gun Safety. They note that 90%-plus support universal background checks or closing the gun show loopholes. Who’s at fault for that measure not passing?
POWELL: In the case of that particular law, that goes squarely on the shoulders of the National Rifle Association. This is the problem with the place. This is a perfect example of the problem. There’s 100 million-plus gun owners. And you’d be very hard pressed to find one that has any problem with taking a background check to obtain a firearm. It’s just not the case. … And the problem is the NRA has been very opposed to it for all these years, because the actual membership itself if the fringe of the hundred million. And they view any attempt whatsoever as an infringement on their own gun rights because that’s what they’ve been told. They’ve had it beat into them for decades. Anything whatsoever is an infringement on their rights and the slippery slope argument. … The people who die from gunshot wounds every year range from mass murders to largely inner-city shootings and then suicides. And suicide ranks about half of all the gun deaths in the country. And those are, interestingly enough, in geographic areas that are largely far away from inner cities. So it’s a very complex debate that is going to require sophisticated solutions that are tailored to each individual gun death. And that’s not what we do. We live in a world where the louder and the more extreme we sound, the more airtime we get.
DEADLINE: What about Donald Trump — where do you think that he stands on some of these issues? Because there have been moments as you described in the book for example, right after Parkland, he had that meeting with a group of senators, and it seemed like he was starting to favor some of these gun-control measures. I think he might have even mentioned the AR-15 at one point.
POWELL: What is unfortunate is that we never look at this as a is a complete solution. And I talked to Wayne about that last year and said we should flip this entire thing on its head, and we should own this. Not only should we do background checks, we should put more money to the ATF and local law enforcement to prosecute these folks, and we need to look at potential “red flag” solutions. And each of those is very complicated. And you need to make sure that you’re actually following an adjudication process.
But back to your original question. I do think the president was very motivated, and I do think he was very moved by what happened in Parkland. To say he wasn’t isn’t really being truthful. But ultimately, he was told, “You’re going to get rolled if you do this, and people and all that vote will not come out for you.” And I think nobody would have changed their vote in this election, that he would be worried about, from Donald Trump to Joe Biden, had he supported those initiatives.
DEADLINE: You write about NRA TV. One thing that surprised me was its cost. You say Oliver North had a $2 million contract. How did all that get approved?
POWELL: It’s an absurd amount of money when you look at $75 million was dumped into a TV show that no one watched. And you’re in the entertainment business. That’s a lot of money, with no revenue potential on the other side of it whatsoever, not even getting anywhere fathomably close to being a self-sustaining operation. … And more importantly, it morphed into this very odd sort of right-wing rant on lots of topics well beyond the Second Amendment, spewing off about border walls, all sorts of stuff every day. … It was a very bizarre. I mean, it was almost a caricature. As I write in the book, when Steve Bannon thinks you’re crazy, you’re crazy.
DEADLINE: How did the NRA view showbiz activists who spoke out in favor of gun control?
POWELL: They would they would put them in the bucket of liberal elitists. You know, what does Hollywood have to do with Main Street America, telling me what should be happening with gun laws? And probably with some level of hypocrisy, which I understand.
But I also think part of the problem is that Hollywood holds lots of sway in America. Unfortunately, solving this problem is so complex, it’s a little difficult to come up with a one-sentence punchline that you can trot out your favorite actor or actress on. And it would be wonderful to see folks from Hollywood who do care about this. Because I do believe politics and Hollywood intersect in a very fascinating way. And I think that, in an interesting way, Hollywood, the entertainment industry could, frankly, help move this discussion to a place where we can start to solve problems and get off the edges a little bit.
DEADLINE: The NRA also has drawn on entertainment figures — Charlton Heston, and then in the book you described Dean Cain as one suggestion of being a future NRA leader.
POWELL: Wayne understood the power of Hollywood. He tried to court numerous people out there during various times, and certainly [Charlton Heston] was in many regards kind of the golden age of the NRA. And who better to talk about your issue then, you know, Moses himself? He was the best.
So that was a big moment in the history of the place. Wayne said to me one day, ‘What about Dean Cain?’ Wayne always talked to me about leaving the place. And, I mean, I didn’t really know Dean Cain — I met him once or twice. It was kind of funny. Superman.
DEADLINE: You mentioned the New York attorney general investigation. You have said that she only has grasped the tip of the iceberg. You are one of the defendants. Are you cooperating with her, or do you plan to cooperate with her?
POWELL: Of course. Of course. I think the attorney general will find that there’s decades and decades of, corruption and that the money was wasted on the back of paying members.
[Andrew Arulanandam, a spokesman for the NRA, said in a statement: “Mr. Powell’s words speak for themselves. As recently as last year, he was a full-throated supporter of Mr. LaPierre, the NRA and its Second Amendment advocacy. Today, he has been outed as someone who abused the NRA for years – directing contracts to family members, using NRA money to fly his family to Palm Beach and other abuses.
“Here are the important points: The NRA is in great financial shape, enjoying record support and moving on from the cloud of this individual and a handful of other fiduciaries who took advantage of the trust placed in them.”
At the time that James’ lawsuit was filed, NRA President Carolyn Meadows called it a “baseless, premeditated attack on our organization and the Second Amendment freedoms it fights to defend.”]
DEADLINE: What do you think of the NRA’s response to to your book? They’ve accused you of financial impropriety.
POWELL: That’s what you do to stop somebody coming forward and spilling the beans on your organization. How you stop a whistleblower is you accuse him of all sorts of different stuff. What they leave out of their response is the fact that they offered me $850,000 in a nondisclosure agreement with a gag order so I can never have a conversation with you. They can say whatever they want, but the reality is, they did not want me to talk at all. It became an issue when I became adverse.
DEADLINE: Where do you see the attorney general’s investigation leading?
POWELL: We’ll see how this plays out. There’s already too many stiff allegations that will have to be dealt with. And the fact is that she’s really at the tip of the iceberg in this investigation.
DEADLINE: What about the allegations she makes against you?
POWELL: Well, I obviously can’t talk about legal issues with the attorney general, but it has been reported that we’re cooperating in her investigation of the NRA.
DEADLINE: Finally, I just want to ask you, should the NRA be going back to its roots that you described in the book — that this is much more a gun-safety organization than it is a political organization?
POWELL: It definitely needs to go back to being a training-and-education organization. In some shape or form, definitely there will need to be advocacy like any other organization as a political operation. … Unfortunately, it’s morphed into this sort of right0wing rant, and it needs to be a much more inclusive organization.
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