NRA v. Ackerman, Virginia

Deposition of Former NRA Lawyer Steve Hart

February 4, 2020

Filing Summary

On February 4, 2020, J. Steven Hart (“Steve Hart”), the longtime lawyer for the National Rifle Association board, sat for a deposition in the group’s litigation with their former vendor Ackerman McQueen. That deposition transcript was made public in a July 6, 2021 filing by Ackerman. 

NRA Watch reviewed the transcript and highlighted some testimony of note below.

Key Points

  • Before becoming the NRA Board’s attorney, Hart worked in private practice. “And then,” Hart testified, “around 2011, the counsel to the board became ill and Wayne [LaPierre] asked me to come in and replace him.” (p. 18) He further testified that in this role, his clients were “the NRA board and the NRA officers,” including Wayne LaPierre. (p.24) When asked about who he reported to, Hart testified that, “I really report to Wayne.” (p.44) Hart described the board as an “elderly white group.” (p.59)
    • Hart maintained this position until his resignation in May 2019. Hart testified that the NRA “suspended” him in April 2019, at which point “the writing was on the wall.” At the time of his suspension, Hart was on a $60,000 monthly retainer from the NRA. (p.26) Hart testified that following his suspension, “some board members would call me and ask me what was going on, [but] I was instructed by Wayne not to have conversations with them. You can’t just hang up on them. And mostly, I encouraged them to stay if they would.” (p.105)
  • Hart testified that the NRA began looking into reincorporating in a different state prior to 2018. He testified that an outside tax expert began looking into “what we needed to do in order to re-incorporate. And there was going to be a big fight about whether we were going to re-incorporate in Delaware, which I think the lawyers would all want. Or, in Tennessee or Texas where we would have a more favorable environment, politically. I mean some people suggested Alabama.” (p.54) Hart continued, “the object would have been to have gone through this cleansing process quietly and then present the notice to the New York AG that we are moving and then that would have triggered an automatic audit.” (p.55)
    • Wayne LaPierre had another strategy as part of his “long-term planning,” Hart stated. “I mean there are all sorts of different strategies. We could have incorporated our, what you guys probably know as Lexington and Concord was the beginnings of a process to create, this is one of — Wayne does long-term planning and Lexington and Concord is part of long term planning. Where you take the for-profit operation and move it, you know, to a separate entity and then under, theoretically we could have then merged the NRA into that for profit operation.” (p.55-56)
    • Later in his testimony, Hart described the “Lexington and Concord” strategy further. Hart testified that Josh Powell’s wife “definitely was a participant in the, you know, what I called the modernization project. This is a Lexington and Concord project.” (p.89) At a later point, he said further: “And, one of the possible funders of Lexington and Concord operation that would expand to be an insurance company in our for-profit would, that was a client of McKenna. So, we were working on a format for the Lexington Concord thing that would attract capital, because we need it.” (p. 90)
  • Hart testified that Wayne LaPierre has been re-elected to his EVP position for decades, and that he has “never seen any evidence that [LaPierre] was going to lose control of the board.” (p.58) Moreover, he stated during his years as the NRA Board’s attorney, he never saw a single challenge to Mr. LaPierre for the position of EVP. (p.63)
  • Regarding NRA finances, Hart testified that “you know, you spend a ton of money trying to get Trump elected and that puts you in the hole, and if he wins, you go further in a hole because gun rights are no longer a threat. So after any election of a president, the NRA’s finances suffer until you get back into an election cycle. So, it is an up or down. So, you would reach your crescendo of financial stability in the fourth year of Democratic administration. And then it is downhill for a couple of years and then a revival will hopefully occur.” (p.71) He stated later that: “And I think I have already discussed this a little bit. I, you know, after the 2016 election, our funding drops in ’17/’18, theoretically we pick up in ’19 and be gang busters in ’20, right.” (p.173)
  • Hart testified that “paranoia” existed at the NRA that Chris Cox would “take over.” Hart stated that, “Well, there’s always the paranoia, I mean I could be one of those people. Because, if Chris Cox took over, I would be fired in 20 minutes.” (p. 88-89)
  • Hart testified that Bill Brewer “quit talking” to him in 2019. He stated, “I think he [Brewer] felt like I was challenging his billing practices.” (p.110-111) At a later point in his testimony, Hart stated it was his view that Bill Brewer “orchestrated [Hart’s] removal” because he questioned Brewer’s billings to the NRA. (p.315) When reflecting on Hart’s personal relationship with Brewer, he testified that: “I liked Bill. I don’t know if Bill has friends. But, I think I liked him. He is fascinating. He is a caricature of himself, you know.” (p.343)
  • When discussing NRATV, Hart testified that Dana Loesh “is a piece of work.” (p.133)
  • Hart testified that, around the time of Oliver North’s hiring, that the NRA was “Suddenly…in an environment because of Newtown, [where] we need kind of a full-time hands on person out there, helping sell the can of Coke. And so it was a much different environment.” (p.135)
  • When asked about Ackerman McQueen budget discussions in 2018, Hart testified that he was often involved “Because when it, whenever it got controversial, you know, Wayne would call me up and say you need to do something. This is getting controversial, do something.” (p.176)
  • When describing an ad campaign that aired on television, Hart testified that: “It was good stuff. It made you cry. It was sort of a counter to what you call the Newtown. You know, the NRA are all criminals and bad guys. We are not bad guys, we build houses for wounded veterans, so, there is a bunch of positive stuff out there.” (p.208)
  • Hart testified that providing major donor information “to the NRA Treasurer’s Office would have been a, you know, a security risk is a bad word. But, the risk of those donors, names, you know, we are asking rich people for money. They don’t want to be publicly identified with us. So, a lot of this information was kept inside of Ackerman so that it could be kept secret, because that information leaked would have destroyed our major donor program. If only one of them had been leaked, the others would have taken a hike.” (p.248)
  • When describing issues between Bill Brewer and Ackerman McQueen, Hart testified that the NRA should have resolved “these things privately. We were — hindsight will show that instead of resolving it quietly, we created a road map for the New York AG. I think that is a highly destructive path.” (p.255-256) 
  • Hart describes Danny Hakim as “one of Brewer’s best contacts in the media world.” Hart goes on to say that: “I think Brewer works with him on all different sorts of stories, you know. He is a source; Brewer is a source for Hakim regularly and he feels like he can get Hakim to write positive stories from time to time.” (p.276-277) Later in his testimony, Hart stated: “Oh, yeah, Brewer, I believe he is an authorized leaker” and that “either Frazer or Wayne” authorized Brewer to leak. (p.404)
  • Hart testified that Woody Phillips was a competent and “very nice guy,” but “not an extremely detailed manager that you would often expect in a CFO role, because that is what the treasurer is.” (p.338)
  • When questioned about Wayne LaPierre’s behavior, Hart testified: “I mean, I, you know, Wayne may have done, you know, made some purchases that he needed to reimburse. But it could have been done quietly. In my opinion. Of course, I don’t know what I don’t know. … Again I am a tax lawyer. So, there is nothing wrong with acquiring a wardrobe, you know, and having your employer pay for it. As long as those clothes are segregated from your personal clothes. When you mix them up, then you’ve got to reimburse for some of it.” Hart went further, saying that LaPierre should pay taxes on the clothes and at least a portion of his private plane rides, because those “would be an income.” (p.344-345)
  • When asked about the allegation that Hart was engaged in some kind of conspiracy or coup against Wayne LaPierre, Hart testified that: “There was a coordinated effort to try to deal with Bill Brewer, this has been reconstructed as a conspiracy against Wayne.” When asked who was involved in this activity against Brewer, Hart said: “I don’t believe Ackerman was ever involved, if that is your question.” (p. 395)