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NRA Says It Receives Foreign Funds, But None Goes To Election Work

Merchandise for sale at the 2015 NRA Annual Convention in Nashville, Tenn. The organization is responding to a request from a top congressional Democrat over foreign funding amid questions about its possible role in Russia's 2016 election meddling.

The National Rifle Association acknowledged that it accepts foreign donations but says it does not use them for election work — even as federal investigators look into the role the NRA might have played in Russia's attack on the 2016 election.

Pressure on the organization has also been increased by a McClatchy report which suggested that the FBI had been investigating whether a top Russian banker with Kremlin ties illegally funneled money to the NRA to aid President Trump's campaign for president. The Federal Election Commission has also opened a preliminary investigation into this question.

The NRA is not required to be transparent about how money moves between its various political entities, and this leaves questions unanswered about how these foreign funds were ultimately spent.

In the context of ongoing investigations, Sen. Ron Wyden, the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, wrote to the National Rifle Association earlier this month asking, "Can you categorically state that your organizations have never, wittingly or unwittingly, received any contributions from individuals or entities acting as conduits for foreign entities or interests?"

The NRA said that in fact they do receive foreign money, but not for election purposes.

"While we do receive some contributions from foreign individuals and entities, those contributions are made directly to the NRA for lawful purposes," NRA's General Counsel John C. Frazer wrote to Wyden in a letter obtained by NPR. "Our review of our records has found no foreign donations in connection with a United States election, either directly or through a conduit."

During 2015-2016, Frazer continued, the NRA received money from companies based in the U.S. which may be owned or managed by foreign nationals. "However, none of those entities or individuals is connected with Russia, and none of their contributions were made in connection with U.S. elections," Frazer added.

The NRA's response was not sufficient for Wyden. In a letter dated March 27, the senator demanded that the organization provide a detailed accounting of how foreign funds were used over the past three years, whether they were targeted at particular American audiences, and what its measured impact was.

Wyden also demanded to know whether any Russian nationals or foreign individuals had been members of the NRA's donor programs, and whether the NRA received any money from sanctioned individuals.

While the NRA claims it does not receive foreign money for election purposes, the movement of its money between accounts could make it difficult, if not impossible, to track how the money is spent since it is not isolated or sequestered.

The NRA has a variety of accounts, and the NRA Political Victory Fund is their official political action committee and must report all of its spending to the Federal Election Commission.

It also has other accounts that require less transparency, and do not report spending to the FEC — and in those funds, the NRA told Wyden, they "receive funds from foreign persons only for purposes not connected to elections, as permitted by federal law."

However, the NRA acknowledges that money moves between those accounts: "transfers between accounts are made as permitted by law," the NRA's general counsel wrote.

The NRA did not immediately respond to a request from NPR to disclose the total sum of its donations from foreign sources.

The NRA has been the subject of criticism for its opposition to gun control measures — criticism that has intensified in the wake of shootings at a high school in Parkland, Fla., last month.

The controversy around the NRA and alleged ties to Russia center around one man: Kremlin-linked Russian politician Alexander Torshin. Starting in 2011 Torshin began cultivating ties with the National Rifle Association, establishing relationships with NRA officials, most especially former NRA President David Keene.

Torshin's relationship with the NRA opened the door to his becoming an election observer in during the 2012 U.S. presidential election, at least five years of attendance at NRA conventions, and he even claimed to know Donald Trump through the organization.

"I know D. Trump (through NRA)," Torshin once wrote on Twitter. "A decent person."

The House Intelligence Committee investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 elections, led by Republicans, reportedthat "Donald Trump Jr. briefly met with a Russian government official at the 2016 National Rifle Association annual meeting," but that the committee found no evidence that they discussed the election.

NPR's Peter Overby contributed to this report.
Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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