Congressional investigators are examining information that an ex-National Rifle Association board member who had done legal work for the group had concerns about its ties to Russia and its possible involvement in channeling Russian funds into the 2016 elections to help Donald Trump, two sources familiar with the matter say.
Cleta Mitchell, who represented the NRA for years, is on a newly disclosed list of people whom Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee are seeking to interview. Democratic investigators for that committee’s Senate counterpart also are interested in what she may know about relationships between the NRA or its allies and wealthy Russians, said the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
Mitchell told McClatchy in an email that any suggestion she has concerns about the NRA's Russia connections is a "complete fabrication."
The sources declined to detail the specific nature of the information prompting investigators’ interest in Mitchell, a prominent gun rights champion, election law specialist and veteran conservative operative.
The nation’s leading gun rights lobby was the biggest backer of Trump’s presidential campaign, spending $30 million to help propel him to his upset victory over Democrat Hillary Clinton, a strong advocate of gun control laws. But in January, the NRA was drawn into the furor over Russian interference in the election when McClatchy reported that the FBI was investigating whether Russian banker and “lifetime” NRA member Alexander Torshin, who hosted a high-level NRA delegation in Moscow in late 2015, funneled funds to the NRA to help Trump.
It’s illegal for foreign funds to be spent in American elections.
“Whether there was an effort by Russia to create a back channel or assist the Trump campaign through the NRA or gun-rights groups is an open question the committee’s minority has endeavored to answer for the past year,” California Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said in a statement to McClatchy. “Much work remains to be done concerning that thread of our investigation, including conducting witness interviews and receiving relevant documents from several organizations and individuals.”
Mitchell's name surfaced after House Republicans announced this week they were ending the panel's year-old investigation into Russia's meddling, which had been plagued by months of partisan friction. They issued a 150-page report that concluded there was no “collusion” between Trump’s campaign and Russia. Angry Democrats responded by issuing a wide-ranging, 21-page status report on Tuesday laying out areas of inquiry that were short-circuited by the majority's decision, vowing to pursue them independently.
Mitchell was among more than two dozen people the Democrats said they would like to interview, including two other figures with connections to Torshin and the NRA. The report said Democratic investigators want to know if Mitchell “can shed light on the NRA’s relationship with Alexander Torshin” or other Russians and also want to see financial records from a South Dakota company and a Russian gun rights group..
Neither the FBI, which is working with Special Counsel Robert Mueller to investigate Russian meddling in the election, nor the congressional committees have provided details of potentially improper Russian involvement with the NRA.
Mitchell, a lawyer with Foley & Lardner, has worked with several prominent conservative organizations and has helped set up nonprofit groups that can legally spend some funds on elections but keep donors secret. She has also worked for an A-list of Republican lawmakers and candidates, including Sens. Roy Blunt (Mo.), Pat Toomey (Penn.) and Marco Rubio (Fla.).
In a series of emails, Mitchell strongly denied having concerns about Russian funds being improperly routed through the NRA.
“I have no knowledge of anything like this and zero concerns whatsoever about anyone — Russians or otherwise — who ‘funneled’ funds to / through NRA,” she said. The NRA “ is meticulous about following all the rules. This is all a complete fabrication.”
On Friday, after this story first appeared, Mitchell said “I have not had any relationship with the NRA in six years. I had zero contact with the NRA in 2016.” The NRA did not respond to requests to verify Mitchell’s statements; according to an NRA publication, her board membership expired in 2013.
Mitchell said she would be willing to talk to investigators but it would be “...wasting everyone’s time and money...”
The NRA’s tax return for the election year of 2016 showed a surge in contributions and grants to $124.4 million, compared with $95 million the prior year. Its overall revenues have risen from $219 million in 2011, the year after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling opened the way for individuals, corporations and labor unions to donate unlimited sums to independent groups to influence election campaigns, to a record $348 million in 2014. Revenues in 2016 were $336.7 million.
Nonprofit groups like the NRA aren’t legally required to publicly name their donors, though they must list the amounts of large contributions. NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam said the largest sum in 2016, $19.3 million, came from the group’s foundation, which in turn received the funds from “hundreds of thousands of individual charitable participants at Friends of NRA banquets all around America.” Those grants are restricted for use in programs with “qualified” charitable purposes, he said.
As the group has said previously, Arulanandam said the FBI has not contacted the NRA about any investigation into Russian financing.
Torshin, the deputy governor of Russia’s central bank and a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, was linked in a secret report by Spanish prosecutors to a money-laundering scheme in Spain that led to a guilty plea in 2016 by one of his Russian associates.
Torshin has denied any role in money laundering or connections to organized crime.
The other two NRA-related figures the House minority wants to interview are Russian-born former Torshin assistant Maria Butina, who, with Torshin, founded a Moscow-based gun rights group in 2012, Right to Bear Arms, and Paul Erickson, a South Dakota conservative operative who has raised funds in the past for the NRA.
The House Democrats’ report said Butina “appears to have been active with the NRA in recent years within the U.S.” and “may be able to clarify for the committee the origin and purpose of alleged Russian-directed efforts to approach U.S. organizations and persons connected to the Trump campaign throughout and prior to 2016.”
In early 2016, Butina and Erickson set up Bridges LLC, a South Dakota-based limited liability company that, Erickson said in a phone interview last year, was meant to help his friend Butina with funds for graduate classes at American University in Washington, an unusual mission for an LLC.
The House Democrats noted that Erickson and Butina had attempted to arrange “a meeting between Donald Trump and Putin through their connection to the National Rifle Association” and recommended seeking from Bridges “records relative to any donations made to the NRA during the campaign, in particular to determine whether foreign money was funneled to the organization” to support Trump.
They similarly urged that records be sought from Right to Bear Arms – Butina’s Moscow group that is likely out of U.S. investigators’ reach.
Besides the Senate Intelligence Committee, which wants to interview the same figures, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, has sent letters to Erickson and Butina requesting that they submit to interviews and provide documents to that panel. It could not be learned whether either Erickson or Butina has yet been interviewed. Neither could be reached for comment.
But whether Democrats will succeed in talking to many witnesses they want to interview without support from Republicans, who control both houses of Congress, is doubtful at best.
In response to a recent letter from Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, a member of both the Senate Intelligence and Judiciary committees, the NRA said it has followed a “longstanding policy” of not spending donations from foreign sources on elections.
But Wyden earlier this month pressed the NRA’s general counsel, John Frazer, for more detailed information. Wyden asked whether the powerful gun lobby group could state firmly that it has “never wittingly or unwittingly” received money “from individuals or entities acting as conduits for foreign entities or interests.”
Wyden asked whether any donations may have gone to the NRA’s nonpolitical accounts and thus freed up other money for political spending.
The TPM website recently reported that the Moscow gun rights group’s membership includes several far-right Russians with strong Kremlin connections as “honorary members.”
The NRA delegation to Moscow was treated to high-end meals by Torshin and met with at least one wealthy publishing executive and executives from a leading gun company. The NRA contingent was led by its former president, David Keene, who forged the group’s ties to Torshin. Wyden noted that the delegation included Joe Gregory, a wealthy Tennessean who runs the group’s Golden Ring of Freedom program for donors who give $1 million and more.
Wyden inquired whether Gregory was traveling “in his capacity” as a high-dollar fundraiser. The senator asked the group for a response by next Monday.
Correction, March 16: An earlier version of this story said that Cleta Mitchell is an attorney for the NRA. According to Mitchell, that is no longer the case.
Peter Stone is a McClatchy special correspondent