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Senator asks whether NRA used Russian funds to free other money for politics

McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)WASHINGTON — A senior member of the Senate Intelligence Committee pressed the National Rifle Association on Monday to divulge whether it has concealed financial support from Russia during the 2016 U.S. election campaign by channeling the money to a nonpolitical account whose donors need not be publicly disclosed.

In a letter to the NRA’s top lawyer, Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon also asked whether the powerful gun lobby group can state firmly that it has "never wittingly or unwittingly" received money "from individuals or entities acting as conduits for foreign entities or interests."

Wyden first sent queries to the NRA in early February in response to a McClatchy News report that the FBI was investigating whether Alexander Torshin, a top Kremlin central banker with close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, had funneled money to the organization. The NRA gave an unusually early endorsement to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign in May 2016 and became his biggest financial backer, spending $30 million on his behalf.

The group forged particularly close ties with Torshin, who attended several of its national conventions, hosted senior NRA officials on a December 2015 trip to Moscow and helped found a Russian gun-rights group in 2013. The FBI got interested in Torshin after Spanish law enforcement authorities issued a secret investigative report that found he helped Russian organized crime figures launder money into banks and hotels in Spain — an allegation Torshin has denied.

In a brief reply to Wyden’s initial letter on Feb. 15, NRA general counsel John Frazer cited the organization’s "long-standing policy" prohibiting the use of money from foreigners — either individuals or entities — for election purposes in compliance with a federal law barring cash from abroad in all U.S. political campaigns. However, Frazer did not directly deny that the group had received any money from Russia.

Wyden’s latest letter to the group, now a flash point for criticism from gun control advocates in the aftermath of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, probes deeper. It seeks to determine whether the NRA hid Russian involvement by accepting financial assistance to nonpolitical accounts, freeing up other money for political activity.

Wyden pointed to published reports that the 2015 NRA delegation to Moscow included Joe Gregory, a charter member of the NRA’s Golden Ring of Freedom program recognizing individuals who donated $1 million or more.

Wyden asked whether Gregory joined the NRA delegation "in his capacity as the individual who runs your organization’s million-dollar donor program" and whether any Russians became members of the program or any related programs before or during the Moscow trip. Wyden also homed in on a statement in Frazer’s Feb. 15 letter that "significant contributions from unknown entities are vetted to ensure the legitimacy of donors."

Larry Noble, a former Federal Election Commission general counsel, said that accepting money in a nonpolitical account still could be illegal "if the NRA made any statements to Torshin or other Russians suggesting that their contributions would allow the NRA to spend more money on the elections."

The FEC has the authority to require any entity spending on U.S. elections to disclose the sources of its money, said Ellen Weintraub, a Democratic commissioner. It’s not enough to trace "the next person in line, who moved the money," she said — that transfer might represent just the latest in a series that have washed funds through offshore shell companies to disguise their true donor.

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