Lawsuit: NRA Illegally Coordinated Up to $35 Million in Campaign Spending

Coordinated spending involves NRA’s support for seven federal candidates, including up to $25 million in illegal contributions to the Trump campaign in 2016

WASHINGTON – Today, Campaign Legal Center Action (CLC Action) filed suit on behalf of Giffords against the Federal Election Commission (FEC) for failing to announce any action against the National Rifle Association (NRA) for using shell corporations to coordinate campaign spending with seven federal candidates spanning three election cycles from 2014-2018. The lawsuit was filed two days before President Trump addresses the NRA’s annual convention for the third year in a row – the only time in American history a president has done so.

The NRA’s complicated scheme had the effect of evading campaign contribution limits and shielding millions of dollars of political spending – including up to $25 million coordinated with Donald Trump’s presidential campaign – from public scrutiny. The Trace first reported on the NRA's scheme.

Campaign Legal Center (CLC) and Giffords filed four complaints with the FEC to address these violations. The FEC is the independent regulatory agency tasked with enforcing campaign finance laws in federal elections, the agency routinely deadlocks and fails to reach the required four votes necessary to open an investigation. Today, Giffords is asserting its right of action in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia after the 120-day period expired in which the FEC was legally required to respond.

“Our elections are awash in secret cash, and the federal agency charged with enforcing our nation’s election laws is asleep on the job,” said Trevor Potter, president of CLC, and a former Republican Chairman of the FEC. “Campaign finance laws are supposed to limit the influence of money in our politics. For our system to function properly, the FEC needs to enforce the laws that preserve the independence of campaigns and limit the influence of well-funded special interests.”

“When the FEC doesn’t do its job, groups like the NRA are able to get around the rules designed to limit the influence of money on our democracy,” said Brendan Fischer, director, federal reform at CLC. “The FEC’s failure to enforce the law sends a message to wealthy special interests that they can push the legal envelope and get away with it.”

“The FEC is supposed to be the nation’s election watchdog, but in this case it didn’t bite, bark, or even whimper,” said Adam Skaggs, Chief Counsel, Giffords Law Center. “Instead, it turned a blind eye while the NRA’s leadership made clear it’s more interested in handing bags of cash to candidates who will carry its water than following American laws or looking out for the interests of gun owners. In a desperate attempt to hold onto power and influence, NRA executives have flagrantly ignored our campaign finance laws and undermined the integrity of our election system. The FEC must bring illegal campaign conduct into the light of day and we are proud to join with CLC in calling on it to uphold the laws that protect the legitimacy of our democracy.”   

Watch our video, which explains the underlying story behind the NRA's scheme.

Campaign finance law allows outside groups like the NRA to make unlimited expenditures supporting candidates only if the expenditures are completely independent of those candidates. To protect this independence, the FEC has rules prohibiting coordination between outside groups and campaigns, which include restrictions on how a vendor may work for both a candidate and an outside group supporting that candidate. Otherwise, the common vendor can act as a conduit to funnel strategic information to the outside group, and then that group’s expenditures are no longer independent.

The lawsuit implicates the NRA’s spending in support of the following seven candidates:

  1. Matt Rosendale (2018 campaign for U.S. Senate in Montana)
  2. Josh Hawley (2018 campaign for U.S. Senate in Missouri)
  3. Donald Trump (2016 campaign for President of the United States)
  4. Ron Johnson (2016 campaign for U.S. Senate in Wisconsin)
  5. Thom Tillis (2014 campaign for U.S. Senate in North Carolina)
  6. Cory Gardner (2014 campaign for U.S. Senate in Colorado)
  7. Tom Cotton (2014 campaign for U.S. Senate in Arkansas)