New Documents Raise Ethical and Billing Concerns About the N.R.A.’s Outside Counsel

July 31, 2019 0 By JohnValbyNation

This article was published in partnership with ProPublica and The Trace.

In 2018, accountants for the National Rifle Association began cataloguing for its board of directors questionable financial arrangements that had led to millions of dollars in payments to a group of the organization’s top executives and consultants. The N.R.A. was experiencing cash-flow problems, and the accountants were trying to address what they believed to be serious financial mismanagement.

For a year and a half, the N.R.A. has employed an outside counsel, William A. Brewer III, who represents the organization in high-profile legal disputes and is also deeply involved in its internal decision-making. The accountants believed that the financial dealings they had found could jeopardize the organization’s nonprofit standing with regulators. Yet, according to a former senior official in the N.R.A.’s treasurer’s office, Brewer tried to thwart their efforts to draw attention to the problematic payments.

The former senior employee, Emily Cummins, who worked for twelve years in the N.R.A.’s treasurer’s office, quietly resigned, in November, as the group’s internal strife escalated. Cummins, in a written statement that began circulating this month among N.R.A. leaders, including at least one board member, alleges that Brewer obstructed the work of N.R.A. accountants and vastly exacerbated the organization’s financial woes as he charged it hefty legal fees. Cummins confirmed that she had produced the statement, which was obtained by ProPublica, but declined to provide any additional comments. Brewer’s firm said its work was justified and of the highest quality.

The statement lays out a list of allegations regarding Brewer’s legal work and his treatment of N.R.A. staff as questions surfaced about his law firm’s billings, which totalled twenty-four million dollars in a thirteen month period. In the first quarter of 2019, Brewer’s firm charged over ninety-seven thousand dollars per day, according to internal N.R.A. documents posted anonymously online.

Cummins accuses Brewer of trying to intimidate, deceive, and silence N.R.A. staff who were processing his bills while growing increasingly troubled by the organization’s mismanagement, exorbitant spending, and questionable deals involving conflicts of interest. Former colleagues of Brewer’s, as well as written correspondence obtained by ProPublica, broadly supported her claims.

Cummins writes in her statement that Brewer “intimidated NRA staff and threatened our professional livelihoods.” She alleges that he used pressure tactics with staffers “to keep them acquiescent,” compiling what she called “burn books” filled with personal information that he could use against individuals.

“I witnessed what appeared to be unrealistic and duplicative billing from Bill Brewer,” Cummins writes. “I witnessed that Bill Brewer himself created a 2018 cash flow crunch by interfering with accounts payable to prioritize paying himself immediately versus other NRA vendors that had been providing goods or services for months without payment, also jeopardizing the NRA’s biweekly staff payroll.”

In a lengthy response to Cummins’s account, Brewer’s law firm, Brewer, Attorneys & Counselors, and the N.R.A. defended Brewer’s work and called his legal fees standard. The firm pointed to an N.R.A. e-mail that it said Cummins wrote in August, 2018, praising the firm. “They are good lawyers and seem to be good people as well,” it said.

Svetlana M. Eisenberg, a Brewer partner, told ProPublica that “the notion that our research team compiles opposition research, or ‘burn books,’ regarding clients or their employees is simply not true.”

Craig Spray, the N.R.A.’s chief financial officer, said that the N.R.A. is “current on all its vendor payments.”

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Brewer has been a central behind-the-scenes force in the internal struggle that broke out between the N.R.A.’s top executive, Wayne LaPierre, and its ousted president, Oliver North. LaPierre has entrusted the future of the organization to Brewer and, in a statement this week, said that the organization has “full confidence in Bill Brewer and his law firm.”

As the gun group has fractured, Brewer’s firm has been a key player in a series of expensive lawsuits against former business partners, government officials, and North, in certain cases seeking damages worth tens of millions of dollars.

For the past three decades, the N.R.A. has been one of the most influential special-interest groups in the country. Without an infusion of cash, and a return to relative stability, it could find itself on the sidelines of the 2020 election, a dramatic difference from 2016. Campaign finance records show that that year the organization spent more than thirty million dollars to help elect Donald Trump, more than any other special-interest group.

Internal N.R.A. documents previously obtained by The Trace and The New Yorker described expenses and questionable transactions and business arrangements involving the organization’s top executives, favored venders, and consultants. Through Brewer, the N.R.A. said that it had “serious concerns about the accuracy” of the reporting, but would not comment on “privileged communications or personnel matters.” Attorneys general in New York and Washington, D.C., have opened inquiries into whether the N.R.A. violated its charitable status by providing excessive financial benefits to its executives and supporters. The D.C. attorney general’s office declined to comment on its inquiry beyond an initial statement, and the New York office did not respond to requests for comment.

Earlier this month, four N.R.A. board members publicly called for an “independent review of the millions of dollars in payments to Brewer, Attorneys & Counselors for legal fees.” But other N.R.A. senior officials continue to defend the group. Carolyn Meadows, the N.R.A.’s president, told ProPublica, “I have never worked with an outside law firm that is more on call, attentive, and positively in tune to the needs of their client.” Charles Cotton, the N.R.A.’s first vice-president and the chairman of the audit committee, added that Cummins’s allegations “reflect a misinformed view of the Brewer firm, its billings, and its advocacy for the N.R.A.”

Brewer’s N.R.A. legal strategy suffered a setback in May, in a First Amendment case against a New York State financial regulator. A judge ruled that the N.R.A. could collect no damages from defendants in their official capacities, even if it prevailed.

Brewer’s firm has offices in Dallas and New York and has represented celebrities such as 50 Cent and major corporations such as 3M, which ultimately settled an environmental suit for eight hundred and fifty million dollars, in 2018. Starting in the mid-nineteen-eighties, Brewer gained a reputation for pioneering unusually aggressive legal tactics that could yield successful outcomes for corporate clients.

But these tactics caused others to question the firm’s conduct. In 1998, the Dallas Observer ran a lengthy story on Brewer that described his firm, then called Bickel & Brewer, as “a pariah within the local legal community, accused of pushing the ethical envelope, running up the costs of litigation, and destroying the gentility of the Dallas Bar.” Brewer, a native New Yorker, characterized his firm’s approach to litigation at the time as “zealous advocacy,” marketing his practice to potential clients as “New York-quality.”

“Bill’s representation of the N.R.A. is a classic example of ‘servicing the client to death,’ ” Hal Marshall, a former Bickel & Brewer partner, told ProPublica. “We tried to leave no stone unturned in our cases, and it often yielded great results. On the other hand, the bills were hefty.”

In 2016, Brewer was fined a hundred and seventy-seven thousand dollars for attempting to influence potential jurors and witnesses in a Texas case. He denied any impropriety and has appealed the ruling, which the Texas Supreme Court will hear arguments on soon. In 2018, a judge found that Brewer had failed to disclose the Texas fine in an N.R.A. suit against an insurance broker in Virginia. After the omission was reported by The Trace, the judge threw Brewer off the case.

In addition to Cummins’s statement, ProPublica obtained text messages and an e-mail composed by former Brewer employees in March, 2018, that alleged unethical behavior by the firm. Four former colleagues of Brewer’s—three of whom, like many firm employees, were abruptly fired during the past two years—described a pattern of disregard for ethical billing and conduct. The texts and e-mail were sent just before the N.R.A. began to heavily invest its dwindling resources in litigation by the firm.

In early March, an attorney who had worked as a Brewer associate sent an e-mail to another New York City-based law firm. The firm worked for a hedge fund that was locked in a legal fight against Eco-Bat, a lead-production company represented by Brewer’s firm. The e-mail warned, “A number of attorneys have recently left Brewer, concerned about the firm’s ethics violations.”

It went on to say that a Brewer attorney believed that he had been fired “for refusal to violate ethical rules.” The attorney thought that he had identified a disqualifiable conflict of interest involving an attorney on his team, the e-mail said. When the Brewer lawyer “confirmed his initial analysis,” the e-mail said, “he was told to drop the matter and terminated the following Monday.”

Sarah Rogers, a partner at the Brewer firm, dismissed the e-mails and told ProPublica, “We cannot discuss this matter, except to note that the former associate’s claims are false and have already been rejected by an arbitrator.” Eco-Bat’s chairman and C.E.O., Howard M. Meyers, praised Brewer’s work and said that the litigation was “a stunning, multibillion-dollar achievement.” He added, “I’ve been Bill’s friend and client for decades. I have never witnessed, nor would I expect, anything less than the highest ethical standards from Bill and his firm.”

Travis Carter, a spokesman for the Brewer firm, told ProPublica, “All time charged to client matters is scrutinized internally for accuracy, transparency and value.”

Later that spring, Brewer brought a lawsuit on behalf of the N.R.A. against Governor Andrew Cuomo, of New York, the New York Department of Financial Services, and the regulator’s then top official, Maria Vullo. The New York officials had released statements advising those doing business with the N.R.A. in New York to assess the potential reputational risks of maintaining ties to the gun group. The suit accused those officials of engaging in a thinly veiled conspiracy to destroy the organization, costing it “tens of millions of dollars in damages.”

LaPierre touted the lawsuit in a speech at the 2019 Conservative Political Action Conference. “In real time, right before your very eyes, we, the National Rifle Association, on behalf of all Americans, are fighting perhaps the most important piece of First Amendment constitutional advocacy in the history of our country,” he said.

The lawsuit, which sought to recover the money the N.R.A. had supposedly lost as a result of the New York officials’ actions, became the centerpiece of an urgent fund-raising campaign. On an N.R.A. Web page soliciting donations, the text reads, “Please give as generously as you can—and help win this life-or-death legal battle for the survival of the NRA and freedom.”

During the past four months, the Brewer firm has also been involved in legal actions against once sacred N.R.A. allies. The N.R.A. recently sued Ackerman McQueen, its public-relations firm for more than three decades. Ackerman shaped the N.R.A.’s image and, through productions like NRATV, placed it at the vanguard of the culture wars. Ackerman has historically been the N.R.A.’s most costly vender—in 2017, the firm was paid more than forty million dollars. In a lawsuit in a Virginia state court, the gun group accused Ackerman of engaging in deceptive billing practices and leaking damaging documents that show LaPierre using the firm’s funds for lavish travel and custom suits.

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Another Brewer suit filed in New York is against Oliver North, who spent a tumultuous year serving as the N.R.A.’s president until he was pushed out, in April, at the organization’s annual convention. During the meeting, a leadership struggle unfolded between North and LaPierre, who alleged that North threatened to release damaging information in order to extort him into resigning. In its suit, the N.R.A. claims that the former president engaged in a “failed coup attempt,” absolving it of having to cover North’s legal fees in connection with N.R.A.-related litigation. The suit also, in an unrelated aside, accuses Chris Cox, the N.R.A.’s longtime top lobbyist, of taking part in the alleged scheme to overthrow LaPierre. Cox, who was beloved by many N.R.A. staff and viewed as the natural successor to LaPierre, resigned in June. Before North stepped down, he was seeking to audit Brewer’s billings.

Ackerman, North, and Cox have steadfastly denied the N.R.A.’s allegations. In May, Ackerman filed a defamation suit against the organization, asking for fifty million dollars in damages. That same month, the judge in the New York case, Thomas J. McAvoy, dismissed the organization’s recovery claims; it would get no damages from Cuomo or Vullo in their official capacities or from the Department of Financial Services. The N.R.A. is still pursuing its First Amendment claims.

During the summer of 2018, Cummins and her fellow-accountants took care to document their work. A variety of N.R.A. venders, including Ackerman McQueen, were receiving what some accountants considered to be unjustified payments, and an array of N.R.A. officials and contractors had been involved in what the accountants saw as expense abuses and questionable deals not initially approved by the board’s audit committee.

According to Cummins’s statement, Brewer misled the N.R.A.’s board and “used information gathered by NRA staff to fit different purposes and to frame a different story to the board of directors.” It also says that Brewer “effectively silenced NRA staff who uncovered issues needing board of directors attention” and “influenced members of the board” by “selectively withholding information relevant to their decision making.”

Rogers, the Brewer partner, dismissed Cummins’s statement and said that it “may reflect a radical misunderstanding of certain work my firm performed.” Cotton, the N.R.A.’s first vice-president, said, “I am not aware of any concerns that would preclude the firm from representing the N.R.A., period.”

Cummins concludes her statement by saying that, while still an N.R.A. employee, she had tried to sound an alarm regarding the N.R.A.’s legal representation, writing, “I raised concerns about Bill Brewer internally and with the board audit committee.” According to Cummins, she was ignored.

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The Trace is a nonprofit news organization covering guns in America.