Judge orders investigation of NRA's contributions to political campaigns
Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin speaking at CPAC 2011 in Washington, D.C. (Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

A federal judge in Washington told the Federal Election Commission to do its job and decide whether to investigate accusations that gun lovers secretly gave Republican leaders millions of dollars.

Judge Emmet Sullivan told the FEC in a one-page ruling on Sept. 30 to make the determination within 30 days.

"It is clear the NRA will continue to violate the law until someone stops them," said David Pucino, an attorney for the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence which sued the FEC in 2019.

Trump stuffed the commission with anti-regulation attorneys like Trey Trainor, who represented Trump's 2016 campaign, and Sean Cooksey, previously the general counsel for Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) The FEC spent much of the presidential election year of 2020 not even able to meet because it didn't have enough commissioners.

The FEC generally has five years to act on campaign finance violations. Giffords, founded by former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, said the commission failed to act on allegations that the NRA coordinated millions of dollars in illegal campaign contributions to Trump and other candidates.

FEC attorneys asked Sullivan to throw the case out, saying there had been no unreasonable delay under "deferential standards of review."

In fiscal 2019, the commission started 31 investigations, at least twice as many as were opened in each of the previous six fiscal years.

"This court should decline plaintiff's invitation to ratchet up the standard for what constitutes lawful agency action," they wrote.

The Giffords lawsuit says the NRA used a network of shell corporations to illegally coordinate spending millions with the Trump campaign and at least six other federal candidates including Hawley and Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.)

Giffords accused the National Rifle Institute for Legislative Action and the NRA Political Victory Fund of spending more than $25 million during the 2016 election cycle supporting Trump and distributing and placing those ads with the same employees who were placing Trump's own ads.

The Supreme Court has permitted unlimited independent political spending by groups like the NRA on the theory that independent spending does not pose the same risk of corruption as direct contributions. Expenditures coordinated with a candidate are not considered independent.

Other candidates who benefited from the NRA scheme in 2014 were:

  • Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) who defeated Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan.
  • Cory Gardner who beat Democratic incumbent Mark Udall to represent Colorado in the Senate. He lost the 2020 race.
  • Cotton who ousted Democratic incumbent Mark Pryor in Arkansas.

In 2016, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) kept his seat with NRA help. Hawley beat Democratic incumbent Claire McCaskill in 2018 in Missouri with assistance from the NRA.

Matt Rosendale challenged Democratic incumbent Jon Tester for the U.S. Senate in 2018 in Montana with NRA help but lost. Rosendale was elected in 2020 to the U.S. House.