A gun control nonprofit founded by former Rep. Gabby Giffords (D-AZ) sued the National Rifle Association on Tuesday, filing a federal lawsuit alleging that the gun rights group carried out an illegal, multimillion-dollar political coordination scheme that went on for years to the benefit of Donald Trump and other Republicans.
It could also be a landmark case for U.S. election law.
Giffords’ nonprofit—also called Giffords—had previously targeted the NRA in a number of complaints to the Federal Election Commission. Those complaints, first filed in 2018, went unanswered by the agency for so long that on Monday a federal judge granted Giffords the right to sue the NRA itself—opening a door that campaign finance reform advocates say had been locked for too long.
But it did not take Giffords long to act. One day later, the nonpartisan watchdog Campaign Legal Center Action, which has been working with the nonprofit, filed the new lawsuit in D.C. District Court.
The lawsuit centers around the allegation that the NRA skirted campaign finance laws—contribution limits and disclosure requirements—by using a network of shell companies to funnel money to Trump and other GOP candidates. The lawsuit also alleges that the NRA-affiliated shell companies illegally coordinated with Republican campaigns by using the same vendors and personnel to run ads for these candidates.
The lawsuit claims these vendors, which had different names when working for campaigns and when they were working for private companies, were “functionally indistinguishable.”
“They are led by the same people, located at the same address, and have no internal separation or firewall between the staff who work for each entity,” the lawsuit said.
Molly Danahy, Senior Legal Counsel for Litigation at Campaign Legal Center Action, said in a press release that “this illegal coordination corrupts our election process and deprives voters of their right to know who is spending to influence their vote.”
“But as usual,” Danahy said, “the FEC failed to enforce the law.”
David Pucino, senior staff attorney for Giffords Law Center, called the NRA’s alleged illegality “brazen.” The group, Pucino said, had “used shell companies to funnel millions and millions of dollars” in advertising expenses to consultants who simultaneously contracted with various Republican campaigns. Federal law bars outside groups from coordinating directly with candidates.
As a remedy, the complaint asks the court to issue an order to prevent the NRA from “violating the law in future elections,” as well as a fine in the amount of money spent in the scheme, payable to the Treasury Department. The lawsuit pegs that number as high as $35 million—with $25 million going to Trump’s 2016 campaign—and it cites a section of the federal civil code which could as much as double that number, if the court finds the violation was “knowing and willful.”
A number of federal candidates received the allegedly illicit support, going back as early as 2014. The complaint details efforts that year extending to the campaigns of Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC), Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR), and Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO). Two years later, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) and then-candidate Donald Trump’s presidential bid benefited. And in 2018, the NRA deployed the supposed scheme to back two more GOP campaigns—Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO), and Montana Senate hopeful Matt Rosendale.
“They were presumably so brazen because they assumed no one would enforce the law,” Pucino said. “Our lawsuit shows that assumption is wrong.”
And that’s where the implications spiral.
The suit is among a handful of trailblazers currently going through the courts. It carves a legal path around a politically deadlocked FEC, whose Republican commissioners have long been criticized by Democrats for stonewalling the agency’s duty to enforce campaign finance violations.
Giffords, however, found a loophole. As legal expert Stuart McPhail explained, Congress saw a deadlocked FEC coming when it created the commission, so it created a unique backstop.
“You can sue the FEC if it doesn’t do its job, then a court can order it to do its job, and if it doesn’t, the complaints can go to court themselves,” said McPhail, the legal counsel at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, another government watchdog which is pursuing two similar workarounds in court. “It’s like consumer protection and environmental lawsuits. It’s not only up to government agencies; citizens can go to court for redress.”
This lawsuit followed that same track. Initially, the CLCA and Giffords tried to get the FEC to act. When that failed, they sued the agency directly in federal court. This September, the court gave the FEC 30 days to act on the complaints, and when that deadline passed on Monday, the plaintiffs—after three years of waiting—wasted little time exercising their rights.
Pucino, counsel for Giffords Law Center, said he was disappointed that the FEC did not act, and “these violations would seemingly be able to go on if not for Giffords and the CLC stepping up.”
“It’s good that the system provides these outlets, specifically designed with that backstop we’re using,” he said. “That’s not something the NRA counted on when it launched this scheme.”
Democratic FEC commissioners have expressed frustration with their own agency.
Sitting Democratic Commissioner Ellen Weintraub provided a statement to The Daily Beast supporting this new step.
“Congress built the third-party-lawsuit oversight mechanism into the FEC’s governing statute for just this sort of situation. This lawsuit will go before a federal court that can evaluate the facts and law and enforce the law as Congress intended,” the statement said.
Former Democratic Commissioner Ann Ravel called the challenge “another example of the need to reform the dysfunctional FEC.”
“It’s definitely notable, as CLC has more willingness to assure that the law is enforced than the agency actually tasked with enforcement,” Ravel told The Daily Beast. “It’s fortunate that there are aggressive and knowledgeable groups such as CLC to hold campaign finance violators accountable.”
The sense of relief was shared by Paul Ryan, vice president for policy and litigation at watchdog Common Cause, who told The Daily Beast that in the federal campaign finance world, “there’s no cop on the beat.”
“For too long the FEC, primarily due to GOP Commissioners blocking agency action, has allowed massive violations of campaign finance law to go unpunished. Political players in Washington know there’s no cop on the beat. They cross legal lines, get away with it, and then commit even more egregious violations,” Ryan said.
He explained that, in response to complaints, “the FEC drags its feet for years”—often allowing the five-year statute of limitations to expire, after which the agency cannot haul violators into court.
“Outrageously, commissioners then sometimes acknowledge that violations occurred, but that the FEC has run out of time to do anything about it,” Ryan continued. “The Campaign Legal Center and Giffords aren’t taking it anymore. This is vitally important work to hold lawbreakers accountable—work the FEC should be doing, but isn't. Godspeed.”
This is not the only legal effort in the courts taking advantage of this end-around. CREW took a similar route in a case filed against the right-leaning nonprofit American Action Network, alleging the dark money group failed to properly register with the FEC as a political organization. That suit, along with another complaint challenging FEC immunity from judicial review, is moving forward, with actions expected possibly this month, according to McPhair.
This, of course, is not the first time that Giffords’ namesake, Gabby Giffords, has clashed with the NRA. In 2011, a gunman nearly killed her in an assassination attempt, after which she embarked on a crusade to restrict access to firearms.
Pucino expressed gratitude for those efforts.
“I’m honored I get to work for Gabby, and that this work honors her courage and bravery. This suit is just another example, that the org that carries her name also carries from her,” he said.