For four years, the National Rifle Association ran deficits and drained its cash pool. Now, as it faces angry creditors and a woeful credit rating, leaked internal documents make it clear the pro-gun group wasted much of its money on costly, controversial membership drives, which now threaten the group’s existence.

For a long time, top brass were kept in the dark about just where the money was going. On Jan. 20, 1994, then-finance committee chairman Max Goodwin complained in a letter to the board of directors: “[W]e have been set up for failure. We can approve the budget, but then have no control over management when the budget is grossly exceeded.” NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre, wrote Goodwin, “has been put in a position for which he lacks necessary skills.”

Then, in a May 6, 1994 memo to the group’s treasurer, NRA President Thomas Washington wrote: “We really need to have some better figures for the finance committee,” followed by the admission: “Many questions are coming up that I simply am unable to answer.”

In the memo, Washington asked to see “whatever contract we have with PM Consulting,” the public relations firm responsible for the NRA’s direct mail campaign.

Eventually, Washington saw a spreadsheet prepared for the 1994 board of directors’ meeting that shows the campaign carried a $29 million price tag–a 134 percent jump from 1991 to 1993 , and nearly 20 percent of the NRA’s budget.

Insiders claim that PM Consulting’s Brad O’Leary received $50,000 a month and a series of bonuses that would make a major league ballplayer blush. (O’Leary was responsible for the letter that characterized Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents as “jack-booted government thugs,” and prompted George Bush to resign from the NRA.)

But since NRA officials–and most of the public–learned of the organization’s financial straits, the gravy train has, apparently, ended. O’Leary says he’s no longer on such a large retainer, and he’s had to lay off three of 10 people who worked on the NRA account. And while the organization continues its strident direct mail (a recent letter by LaPierre threatened to “clean Bill Clinton’s clock”), board members have confided that they fear the campaign, which ballooned membership to 3.5 million, could alienate members just when their dollars are needed most.

DOES IT FEEL LIKE POLITICS IS AT A BREAKING POINT?

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We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

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Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

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