NRA Accuses Former Top Lobbyist of Grift

The National Rifle Association is accusing its former top lobbyist of fleecing the organization of more than $1 million from 2015 to 2019. The allegation that Chris Cox benefited from extravagant, unauthorized expenses that were charged to the nonprofit appears in a tax document filed by the NRA in November and provided to Rolling Stone by the organization. Through his lawyer, Cox disputed the allegations.

Until his ouster last year, Cox ran the NRA’s political arm, the Institute for Legislative Action, with a salary of $1.5 million. Cox was forced from this post after the NRA fingered him as a co-conspirator in a plot to oust the gun organization’s embattled chief executive, Wayne LaPierre. As the head of NRA-ILA, Cox had created his own center of gravity within the gun group’s hierarchy. The NRA’s tax filing describes Cox as ruling NRA-ILA as his own fiefdom, with its own “fiscal staff” and finances that were “maintained separately from those of the other NRA divisions.”

The tax document in question is the NRA’s 2019 “Form 990,” the annual return that nonprofits submit to the IRS to justify their tax-exempt status. In the document, the NRA reports it had “become aware” of illicit benefits that Cox obtained in his tenure. These included, the document states, using NRA funds to “pay personal expenses charged on his personal credit card, amounting to unauthorized interest-free advances to himself.” In addition, the NRA alleges, “Cox caused expenses to be paid by the NRA, or reimbursed to him, for personal and family travel, business trips utilizing unapproved charter or first class travel, tickets to sporting/entertainment events, and meals and hotel expenses which were not approved by the NRA.”

According to the document, these payments by the NRA constituted an “excess benefit” that was “not intended by the NRA to be part of Mr. Cox’s compensation.” (Under the regulations governing nonprofits, an “excess benefit” occurs when a nonprofit spends money to benefit insiders, rather than promote its public purpose.) The document reveals that the NRA is “seeking to recover” from Cox an sum of “in excess of $1 million” that would cover Cox’s excess benefits from 2015 to 2019. (See an excerpt from the NRA’s 990 embedded below.)

Cox did not respond to an inquiry from Rolling Stone, but his attorney Thomas M. Buchanan defended Cox, calling the NRA’s allegations untrue: “The statements in the NRA’s 2019 Form 990 suggesting that Chris Cox was improperly reimbursed for personal expenses are false,” Buchanan writes. Buchanan insists that Cox’s reimbursements were “reviewed and approved” internally by NRA treasurers, as well as outside auditors, none of whom raised red flags about the expenses in real time. “Most of the expenses referenced in the Form 990 relate to season tickets for local sports teams that the NRA used for over 20 years to promote the NRA with political allies, vendors, members, and donors,” Buchanan writes. “Mr. Cox’s travel—which at times required heightened security arrangements—was likewise approved through the appropriate channels and was never questioned during his 24-years at the NRA.”

The allegations leveled against Cox appear in the same document in which the NRA revealed that LaPierre himself had reimbursed the gun group for nearly $300,000 in excess benefits he had received since 2015. That admission and restitution comes as the NRA is under enormous legal pressure, with the Attorney General of New York, Letitia James, seeking to dissolve the nonprofit over its fiscal mismanagement.

Buchanan underscores that his client has been cooperating with James’s investigation, leaving open the suggestion that bad blood rather than fiduciary duty is motivating the NRA’s charges against his client. “Cox produced thousands of documents to the NYAG, and voluntarily answered any and all questions they had of him,” he writes. “Notably, neither Cox nor any member of his NRA-ILA team were sued or otherwise implicated by the NYAG.”

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