The NRA, Russia and Campaign-Finance Reform
(Bloomberg View) -- The National Rifle Association is finished answering questions. That's what the organization told Senator Ron Wyden last week in a letter complaining about Wyden's "time-consuming and burdensome" inquiries into the NRA's ties to Russians.
That answer isn't good enough. The NRA's relationship with Alexander Torshin, a Russian politician and deputy governor of Russia's central bank who has been linked both to Vladimir Putin and to Russian organized crime, is too troubling to ignore. And the group's dismissive response to Wyden has a larger significance: It underlines the need for full disclosure of sources of political funding.
The Treasury Department recently put Torshin on a list of sanctioned Russians. He has been an NRA member since 2012 -- tweeting (in Russian) repeatedly about his affiliation with the group and attending multiple NRA functions where he socialized with the group's top leaders. At one such meeting in 2016, he's reported to have spoken with Donald Trump, Jr.
According to the NRA, Torshin has donated less than $1,000 to the group, and not for election purposes. The group initially said he was the only Russian to have made any contribution. It later acknowledged receiving around $2,500 from about two dozen others. (It says it checked records from 2015 onward. Efforts by Torshin and other Russians to cultivate relations with the NRA began earlier.)
Sums such as those might seem trivial, but the questions don't stop there. The NRA uses a dark money organization, the NRA-ILA, to shield its donors from public scrutiny, and shield itself from accountability. As a 501(c)(4) "social welfare" organization, the NRA-ILA does not have to disclose its donors despite spending more than $33 million on the 2016 election. (The NRA's political action committee spent another $19 million in 2016.)
At least $800 million in dark money has been spent on U.S. elections since 2010. Exploiting lax campaign-finance law, and a Federal Election Commission that has all but abandoned its enforcement duties, anonymous donors have poured money into 501(c)(4) organizations that channel the funds not to "social welfare" but to partisan election activities. How much of that money is from foreign sources advancing the agendas of foreign businesses or rival nations? No one knows.
The DISCLOSE Act of 2017 would require organizations to report information to help determine sources of political funds, and ban campaign contributions and expenditures by corporations controlled, influenced or owned by foreign nationals. This would be a step forward -- whether the groups support gun rights, gun regulations or don't care about guns at all.
So far Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who used to support disclosure but no longer does, have derailed the measure and similar efforts at transparency.
The NRA seems determined to operate in darkness. Its refusal to answer Wyden's questions underlines the need for a law that would deny it that choice.
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