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There's Something About Mary: Unmasking a Gun Lobby Mole

Mary McFate was a prominent gun control activist. Mary Lou Sapone was a freelance spy with an NRA connection. They are the same person. A Mother Jones investigation.

| Wed Jul. 30, 2008 2:00 AM EDT

Though McFate's colleagues viewed her as a friend, some found it strange that they knew virtually nothing about her life outside the movement. She never explained the source of her personal wealth. And Toby Hoover, the executive director of the Ohio Coalition Against Gun Violence and an activist who worked with McFate since the mid-1990s, says, "She never talked about what she had done prior to this work. I didn't even know if she had a husband or kids." Ceasefire New Jersey's Bryan Miller adds, "She doesn't talk about her family. I know nothing about her personal life other than that she lives in Sarasota, Florida. For my closest friends in this movement, who also know Mary, it was a matter of low-level discussion that we didn't know anything about her."

There was good reason for that.

Outside the gun control world, Mary Lou Sapone was, as Mother Jones has previously reported, a for-hire operative who spied on citizens' groups for corporate clients. Property and phone records indicate that the two names belong to the same person. Last week, a reporter for Mother Jones called the Sarasota phone number that McFate had given her gun control allies and asked the woman who answered if she was Mary Lou Sapone. "Yes," she responded. But Sapone then refused to answer any questions about Mary McFate or her work for gun control. She quickly hung up—and did not respond to subsequent calls and emails.

During Sapone's ascent through the ranks of the gun control movement, she worked for the NRA, according to a business associate. In a 2003 deposition, Tim Ward, who had been president of the Maryland-based security firm Beckett Brown International, said that the NRA had been "a client" of Sapone's. (As a subcontractor for BBI, Sapone had planted an operative within an environmental group in Lake Charles, Louisiana.) According to Ward, at his request Sapone had introduced BBI to the NRA in early 1999. And that introduction quickly paid off. Billing records obtained by Mother Jones indicate that between May 1999 and April 2000, the NRA paid BBI nearly $80,000 for various services.

In another 2003 deposition, Jay Bly, a former Secret Service officer who worked for BBI, was asked what type of work the security firm had done for the NRA, and he responded, "Those are very sensitive issues, and I'm just not comfortable going into it. I'm really not." Later in the deposition, Bly said, "I did a number of different things for the NRA in the area of investigation, the area of personal protection, in the area of event security, in the area of intelligence gathering, okay?"

Ward, during his own deposition, explained what a typical BBI intelligence-gathering operation would entail: "We used informants that we would send to public rallies that these people were holding, public demonstrations. These informants developed relationships where they could pick up a phone up and call in to find out where the next event was, where it was going to be held…They are usually very eager to have somebody come and tote banners and scream and shout." According to Bly's testimony, he and Ward continued their intelligence-gathering operations for the NRA after BBI acrimoniously disbanded around 2001 and Ward opened his own security firm, Chesapeake Strategies. (These depositions were taken during a lawsuit filed against former BBI officials by John Dodd, the firm's primary investor.)

In his deposition, Ward identified Sapone's contact at the NRA as Patrick O'Malley. From the late 1990s until 2002, O'Malley was the deputy executive director of the Institute for Legislative Action, the NRA's political arm. And according to billing records from BBI (which in 2000 changed its name to S2I Corporation), O'Malley was BBI's liaison at the NRA. Recent emails indicate that in 2007 and 2008 Sapone was working with O'Malley, who lobbied for the NRA after leaving the ILA and went on to work for a government relations firm retained by his former employer. In recent years, O'Malley has served as the executive director of the Ballot Issues Coalition, an organization composed of hunting-rights groups, including the NRA.

O'Malley did not respond to numerous messages left at his office and home. Asked about Sapone, James Jay Baker, who was executive director of the NRA's ILA when O'Malley was its deputy executive director, says, "I don't have anything to say about any vendors at the NRA." Baker notes, "We got information from whatever sources we can," but he maintains that he was not aware of any infiltration of the gun control movement. Baker, now managing director of Ogilvy Government Relations, a high-powered lobbying shop, is currently registered as a lobbyist for the NRA. (After leaving the NRA in 2002, both O'Malley and Baker joined the Federalist Group, a lobbying firm that was acquired by Ogilvy in 2005.) Contacted repeatedly, the NRA declined to comment on its past or present relationship with Sapone, BBI, or Chesapeake Strategies.

Informed of McFate's true identity, her friends and associates in the gun control community expressed shock and anger. "That astounds me," says Barbara Hohlt. Of McFate's ability to maintain her cover, she adds, "She was very, very good. Everybody knew her for years and trusted her." Brian Malte, director of state legislation at the Brady Campaign, says, "Oh my…Of all the people." Kristen Rand, legislative director of the Violence Policy Center, remarks, "This is totally bizarre." And she adds, "I would find it hardest to believe this about her. She comes across as kind of dense—or she's putting on a good act."

McFate's (now former) colleagues note that she was well-positioned for many years to provide the NRA—or any other gun rights groups—the plans, secrets, and inside gossip of practically the entire gun violence prevention movement. "She had access to all the legislative strategy for every major issue for years," says Rand. Another gun control advocate who worked with McFate and asked not to be identified recalls, "She was one of those rare people. As a volunteer, she wanted to know more and more about what people were working on." With intelligence gathered by McFate, Ceasefire New Jersey's Miller says, the gun lobby could "learn a lot: what the grassroots of the gun violence prevention movement intended; where our priorities are shifting; which legislation we would be promoting or fighting against and what sort of effort we would be putting into that; who our targeted legislators would be; what states and districts we deemed important enough to put an effort into; our messaging, what our messaging would be before we put it out there."

Hohlt recalled several recent episodes in which McFate maneuvered to place herself in the middle of issues important to the NRA and others in the gun lobby. One occurred this spring, when the London-based International Action Network on Small Arms was trying to persuade American gun control groups to attend a July meeting at the United Nations on small-arms control. (A 2001 UN conference ended up establishing a program weaker than gun control advocates had desired, thanks to the intervention of the Bush administration, which had been lobbied by the NRA.) States United to Prevent Gun Violence had never before been involved with international gun control issues. And to participate in the UN meeting, it had to apply for credentials. Hohlt says McFate pushed her to file for them. Hohlt did so, and McFate ended up being able to learn what the anti-gun forces were planning for the UN session—including the delegates they intended to lobby, and the arguments they would highlight.

McFate also took a keen interest in a gun matter currently under consideration by the Department of the Interior, Hohlt says. At the urging of the gun lobby, the agency has been mulling whether to change its regulations to allow people to carry loaded and concealed guns into national parks under certain circumstances. (At the moment, a gun carried into a national park must be unloaded and kept apart from ammunition.) The National Parks Conservation Association and current and former National Park Service officials have been fighting the proposed rule change. "When Mary heard about this," Hohlt recalls, "she immediately asked to be on the email list [of the opponents] and she also got on the phone calls. So she now knows the strategy of the people trying to fight this." Similarly, when Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a group organized by New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, mounted a campaign against the NRA-backed Tiahrt amendment—legislation advanced by Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-Kan.) and first passed by Congress in 2003 that prevents the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives from sharing gun-tracing data—McFate, according to Hohlt, made certain to participate in conference calls during which strategy for beating back the bill was discussed. "Whenever an issue comes up, she manages to get on the email list," Hohlt says.

The McFate operation, says Miller, "would confirm for me the way that the gun lobby works, which is no rules, no question of fairness or honesty. Anything that they can do they will do to protect the profits of the gun industry." He notes that his organization has experienced low-level attempts at penetration in the past—a pro-gun advocate once posed as a would-be volunteer to get on his group's mailing list—but nothing on this scale.

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