Senator asks whether NRA used Russian funds to free other money for politics

Protesters carried this sign denouncing possible ties between Russia and the National Rifle Association during a demonstration on Feb. 3, 2018 in Portland, Ore.
Protesters carried this sign denouncing possible ties between Russia and the National Rifle Association during a demonstration on Feb. 3, 2018 in Portland, Ore. Sipa USA via AP

A senior member of the Senate Intelligence Committee pressed the National Rifle Association Monday to divulge whether it has concealed financial support from Russia during the 2016 election campaign by channeling the money to a nonpolitical account whose donors need not be publicly disclosed.

In a letter to the NRA’s top lawyer, Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon also asked whether the powerful gun lobby group can state firmly that it has “never wittingly or unwittingly” received money “from individuals or entities acting as conduits for foreign entities or interests.”

Wyden first sent queries to the NRA in early February in response to a McClatchy report that the FBI was investigating whether Alexander Torshin, a top Kremlin central banker with close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, had funneled money to the organization. The NRA gave an unusually early endorsement to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign in May 2016 and became his biggest financial backer, spending $30 million on his behalf.

The group forged particularly close ties with Torshin, who attended several of its national conventions, hosted senior NRA officials on a December 2015 trip to Moscow and helped found a Russian gun rights group in 2013. The FBI got interested in Torshin after Spanish law enforcement authorities issued a secret investigative report that found he helped Russian organized crime figures launder money into banks and hotels in Spain – an allegation that Torshin has denied.

In a brief reply to Wyden’s initial letter on Feb. 15, NRA General Counsel John Frazer cited the organization’s “longstanding policy” prohibiting the use of money from foreigners – either individuals or entities – for election purposes in compliance with a federal law barring cash from abroad in all U.S. political campaigns. However, Frazer did not directly deny that the group had received any money from Russia..

Wyden's latest letter to the group, now a flashpoint for criticism from gun control advocates in the aftermath of the mass shooting at a Parkland, Fla., high school, probes deeper. It seeks to determine whether the NRA hid Russian involvement by accepting financial assistance to nonpolitical accounts, freeing up other money for political activity.

Wyden pointed to published reports that the 2015 NRA delegation to Moscow included Joe Gregory, a charter member of the NRA’s Golden Ring of Freedom program recognizing individuals who donated $1 million or more.

Wyden asked whether Gregory joined the NRA delegation “in his capacity as the individual who runs your organization’s million-dollar donor program” and whether any Russians became members of the program or any related programs before or during the Moscow trip. During the group’s week-long stay, Torshin personally hosted two dinners and a third was held at the Moscow estate of a wealthy publishing executive, according to a California physician, Dr. Arnold Goldschlager, a longtime NRA donor who participated.

The NRA, with an annual budget exceeding $300 million, operates multiple accounts, some of which are legally permitted to weigh in during election campaigns and are covered by differing levels of federal disclosure rules. Wyden asked Frazer whether the group maintains accounts from which no expenditures, or only some expenditures, must be reported to the Federal Election Commission (FEC).

He also homed in on a statement in Frazer’s Feb. 15 letter that “significant contributions from unknown entities are vetted to ensure the legitimacy of donors.”

“Please describe your vetting process for these donations,” Wyden wrote.

Larry Noble, a former FEC general counsel, said that accepting money in a non-political account still could be illegal “if the NRA made any statements to Torshin or other Russians suggesting that their contributions would allow the NRA to spend more money on the elections.”

“Even if the NRA didn’t charge election spending against those contributions, I believe this would be a violation of the prohibition on using foreign funds to influence our elections,” said Noble, now senior director and general counsel of the Campaign Legal Center.

The FEC has the authority to require any entity spending on U.S. elections to disclose the sources of its money, said Ellen Weintraub, a Democratic commissioner. It’s not enough to trace “the next person in line, who moved the money,” she said; that transfer might represent just the latest in a series that have washed funds through offshore shell companies to disguise their true donor.

It’s unlikely that all of Weintraub’s fellow commissioners — currently there are four, and they typically deadlock along partisan lines — agree with her. She declined to say whether the agency is examining the NRA allegations.

However, she noted that the federal law banning foreign money is “broader than pretty much any statutory authority that we have.”

The top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee has also shown interest in the NRA’s Russia connection.

In late January, California Sen. Dianne Feinstein sent letters to two of the organization’s longtime stalwarts, ex-NRA president David Keene, and conservative operative and fundraiser Paul Erickson, inquiring about their contacts with Torshin and asking them to appear for interviews. It’s not clear whether she has heard back from either of the two men, who have declined to respond to McClatchy’s requests for comment.

Keene was instrumental in forging the group’s ties to Torshin, which appear to date back at least to a 2011 NRA convention. After the convention, Keene sent a handwritten note to Torshin, at the time a high-ranking Russian senator who was at the NRA meeting, offering help for his “endeavors.” The Keene note was first disclosed by a California-based writer, Scott Stedman, on the website Medium.

After he stepped down as NRA president, Keene served as op-ed page editor at the Washington Times, which published a piece by Torshin in 2014 about the death of a good friend, Mikhail Kalashnikov, the maker of the eponymous assault rifle.

When the U.S. government imposed sanctions on the gun company later in 2014 in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the NRA issued a statement questioning whether the Obama administration did so in part as a way of expanding restrictions on gun sales.

Torshin, now the deputy governor of Russia’s central bank, has lowered his profile in the United States in recent months. He was a key member of a Russian delegation that attended the National Prayer Breakfast in February of 2017 and in some earlier years, but was not part of the Russian delegation at last month’s event.

The FBI has collaborated with Spanish law enforcement authorities who investigated Torshin in a broad Russian money-laundering investigation, according to former U.S. government officials and experts.

In 2016, Spanish authorities obtained a guilty plea from one Torshin associate and fellow Russian, Alexander Romanov, to money-laundering charges. Romanov was overheard on numerous tapes talking to the Moscow banker and referring to him as “boss.”

Peter Stone is a McClatchy special correspondent

Greg Gordon: 202-383-6152, @greggordon2

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