New court documents filed this month show another development in the contentious break-up of one of the longest business partnerships in politics. The National Rifle Association is alleging Oklahoma City advertising agency Ackerman-McQueen committed fraud to the tune of tens of millions of dollars over the course of their nearly 40-year relationship.
Inside the 80-page filing, the NRA accuses Ackerman of "exploiting decades of trust" and violating the law saying "[Ackerman] now faces a long-overdue reckoning."
At the heart of the dispute is the now shut-down NRATV. During its operation, the online outlet was known for its combative content. Despite continued payments to the ad firm, NRA leaders now say some of them found the messaging on NRATV "distasteful and racist," and when attempts to were made to temper NRATV content, NRA officials say they were met with "evasive-to-hostile responses."
In the filing, the NRA specifically cites an episode of the show “Relentless,” hosted by controversial activist Dana Loesch in which the children’s character Thomas the Train was depicted wearing Ku Klux Klan hoods. NRA officials acknowledged at the time they were satisfied with corrections made to the segment and later renewed NRATV for 2019.
“If the NRA wants to conduct a public conversation about distasteful and racist, they should consider their systemic behavior,” Ackerman Executive Vice President for Public Relations Bill Powers said in a statement. “This is the same executive leadership team and Board of Directors that refused to address the Philando Castile tragedy. This is the executive leadership team that put their heads in the sand every time a board member said something that could be perceived as distasteful or racist.” Philando Castile was a legal gun owner who was shot and killed by police in Minneapolis in 2016. The officer saw Castile’s firearm and opened fire during a traffic stop. He was acquitted of all charges. The NRA was criticized at the time for not immediately defending Castile.
The NRA also accused Ackerman of inflating viewership numbers to as high as 200 million, or nearly two-thirds of the US population. A recent New York Times report placed the viewership at just 49,000.
In a written response, Ackerman officials and Powers called the filing "cynical,” saying it's the NRA that's lying to members by "marketing false products and narratives, covering up sexual harassment" and even "disrupting internal investigations about Russia." The latter is a reference to Russian spy Maria Butina who infiltrated NRA events and conservative inner circles. Butina was later arrested and sent to a federal prison in Florida. She was released and deported back to Russia, Oct. 25.
Ackerman officials say in other court documents that it's the NRA who owns the content from NRATV, saying any criticism of the content is self-reflective. But those same officials stand behind the work that was done at NRATV, maintaining much of it was positive work for gun-rights supporters, specifically despite criticism.
“The membership is being misled,” Powers said in second statement. “The NRA is pouring tens of millions of non-profit funds into lawyers and lawsuits to cover up the abject failure of executive and board leadership.”
The NRA was one of Ackerman's largest clients paying the company up to $40 million in 2017 by its own admission. Ackerman and the NRA ended their partnership in the spring of this year.