NRA insider Phil Journey shines a light on corruption at influential gun-rights organization

Gun Rights

WICHITA — Longtime National Rifle Association board member Phil Journey says hints of financial impropriety surfaced years before the New York state attorney general filed a lawsuit against four executives of the gun-rights advocacy organization and revealed indiscretions so disturbing the conservative political giant could crumble.

Journey, a Sedgwick County District Court judge, said early failings, including unorthodox oral business contracts, didn’t surpass the level of greed exposed at a New York trial in which a jury concluded former NRA head Wayne LaPierre misspent millions of dollars of NRA money on private planes, superyachts, limousines, exotic trips, a flashy wardrobe and other features of an extravagant lifestyle. LaPierre, a fixture at the NRA for 30 years who had the ear of U.S. presidents, was ordered to pay a total of $5.5 million to the NRA.

“You know, back then it was like one thing here, one thing there. Now, it is absolutely pervasive,” Journey, a lifetime NRA member, said on the Kansas Reflector podcast. “At the New York AG trial in Manhattan, the former treasurer testified that he gave his girlfriend a million-dollar consulting contract. That’s an example of what was going on. Tax evasion. Money laundering. Wire fraud. No doubt in my mind that the brand is significantly damaged.”

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Journey testified at that New York civil trial in the role of a whistleblower and during a previous unsuccessful attempt by the NRA to declare bankruptcy to avoid financial accountability for misdeeds. He is expected to testify again in New York this summer as the civil trial judge works to determine whether outside leadership must be appointed to correct management issues affirmed by the jury.

NRA president Charles Cotton said the organization’s members should be “heartened by the NRA’s commitment to best practices, and we will continue to amplify our compliance record in the pivotal next phase of these proceedings.” He said the trial failed to prove the NRA’s board of directors engaged in bad-faith activities.

Once the civil proceeding has concluded, Journey said he anticipated prosecutors would file criminal charges against former NRA employees.

There was no hurry on the criminal side because the statute of limitations was broad enough for prosecutors to wait for incriminating evidence to pile up in the civil case, he said.

The U.S. Supreme Court recently heard oral argument in the NRA’s appeal in the organization’s lawsuit alleging a New York financial regulator attempted to convince companies to stop doing business with the gun-rights group as far back as 2018. The NRA asserted its First Amendment rights were infringed.

In defense, New York regulators said they were enforcing a law forbidding sale of third-party insurance policies through the NRA to cover criminal defense costs or personal injury expenditures tied to use of a firearm. These polices were regarded by critics as “murder insurance.”

“I think there’s some merit to that one,” Journey said. “They did screw up. They … tried to start a carry-concealed insurance company. It ended up being a huge fiasco.”

‘I threw up’

Journey, who orchestrated passage of Kansas’ concealed gun law as a member of the state Senate, said NRA’s national leaders betrayed rank-and-file members. The corruption has been viewed as shameful by faithful members who own a few firearms, enjoy hunting and welcome defense of the right to bear arms, he said.

“That’s why I’ve had to do some of the very difficult things I’ve done in my terms on the board and as a private citizen,” said Journey, including court testimony detrimental to NRA leaders. “The jury finding was that I was a whistleblower. And, (NRA staff) punished me because I wanted them to follow the law.”

In 2019, leadership squabbling within the NRA led to president Oliver North being ousted from that position. That episode put the public on notice all was not well. New York Attorney General Letitia James, who campaigned on investigating the NRA’s not-for-profit status, filed the lawsuit in 2020 alleging NRA executives engaged in nefarious business practices or looted the organization’s treasury. The suit connected the dots even for people closer to the NRA, Journey said.

“Letitia James files her petition in New York court, and I read the 187 pages. I threw up at about 40,” Journey said.

In 2021, the NRA responded by seeking bankruptcy protection. Journey said that was done by NRA brass without notifying the organization’s board members. The petition was denied by a federal bankruptcy court because it appeared nothing more than an attempt to slip away from James’ lawsuit. In 2022, New York Judge Joel Cohen rejected James’ attempt to dissolve the NRA in what would be equivalent of a corporate death penalty.

LaPierre, who resigned as the NRA’s executive vice president and CEO on eve of the trial, previously paid $1 million to the organization. In February, the jury said that was short by $4.5 million. The jury also found NRA general counsel John Frazer violated his professional duties, but didn’t owe any money. A third former NRA executive, Joshua Powell, made a deal to testify at trial, pay a $100,000 settlement. However, jurors said the NRA’s retired finance chief, Wilson Phillips, owed $2 million.

“LaPierre and senior leaders at the NRA blatantly abused their positions and broke the law,” James said. “We will not hesitate to pursue justice against any individual or organization that violates our laws or our trust, no matter how powerful they are.”

Journey said he met LaPierre in Washington, D.C., the day President Ronald Reagan met Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev at the White House. Over the years, he said, LaPierre displayed an odd business management style.

“Essentially, he is like the absent-minded professor who never used email. He never used a cellphone. He never texted. In his office, there would be legal pads all over the place — each one on a different topic,” Journey said.

He said the NRA lost its way, in part, because no one stood up to LaPierre.

“It’s like the emperor that has no clothes,” Journey said. “Nobody would tell him, ‘No way. Don’t do that. That’s not a good idea.’ Because, usually, they would lose their job. There is a messianic element in this. They really believe that Wayne’s the only one that can save the Second Amendment. So everything is justified because the end justifies the means in their mind.”

Make it viable, again

Journey served in the Kansas Senate from 2003 to 2008, and authored bills on the right to carry concealed weapons, legalization of full-automatic firearms and use of suppressors. He’s taught more than 5,000 youth as a hunter education instructor. He served from 1992 to 2016 on the board of the Kansas State Rifle Association, which serves at the state’s NRA affiliate.

He was a candidate for the NRA national board for the first time in 1994. That bid fell short, but he was elected in 1995 to a three-year term. He was elected to another term in 2020. He filed for reelection to the NRA board, where he could be part of the rebuilding of the organization that began as a tool to help people become more accurate shooters and evolved into a political powerhouse influential at the national and state levels. In Kansas, an NRA endorsement means something to voters.

Journey said restoring gun safety programs, which were derailed by diversion of resources to legal expenses, would be important to the NRA’s future. He said advocacy by the NRA on behalf of the Second Amendment was necessary to avoid reckless state and federal laws. For example, he said, the conversation about banning AR-15-style weapons, which have been used in mass shootings, required more logic and less emotion. The NRA can deliver on that, he said.

“Advocacy is important, because I think it’s important to have pragmatic things enacted into law rather than emotional things. And, AR-15s are an emotional thing. The legislation that they draft would be have a much greater reach than just AR-15s. They’re going after everything that is semi-automatic. And, they’re going to have to everything that holds the magazine,” Journey said.

Journey said public opinion, once favorable to the NRA, had significantly eroded. He said Generation Z, or people born between the late 1990s and early 2010s, had been lost. As thousands of NRA members and potential members faded away, the NRA’s financial woes deepened.

He’s part of Restore the NRA, an organization that could be used to rebuild confidence among the membership and reshape the public image.

“We want to restore the public’s perception of NRA and we want to make it a viable organization again,” Journey said. “Right now it’s on the road to bankruptcy again.”

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