Pete Brownell, a former president of the National Rifle Association and an Iowa native, was implicated today in a damning 18-month investigation by Democrats on the Senate Finance Committee into how the gun rights group was used by Russia to influence the 2016 presidential election.
Brownell served as NRA president from 2017-18. He is CEO of Brownells, Inc., a firearm accessories dealer with a large production facility outside Grinnell, Iowa.
The report, released Friday, details how leaders within the tax-exempt organization courted Russians with ties to the Kremlin as they worked to infiltrate American politics.
Brownell first surfaces on page six of the report — “The NRA and Russia: How A Tax-Exempt Organization Became A Foreign Asset” — in connection to a Moscow trip paid for in part by the NRA.
“Contrary to assertions that the purpose of the trip was solely to advance gun rights issues, key participants in the Moscow trip participated primarily or solely because of the business opportunities it presented. Then-NRA Vice President Brownell and [Maria] Butina began discussing Russian business opportunities as early as January 2015,” the 77-page report states, on page eight.
Butina, a Russian, pleaded guilty in 2018 to unregistered lobbying in an attempt to infiltrate politically conservative groups in America.
“She later used his personal business interests to entice him to join the delegation,” the report states. “The pair traveled Russia together for three days to explore personal business opportunities before the rest of the NRA delegation arrived. They visited at least one facility that manufactured equipment for the Russian military. These meetings were crucial to Brownell’s involvement, who said at the time ‘I am not interested in attending if [it is] just an NRA trip.'”
Because the NRA is a tax-exempt organization, it is legally prohibited from using its funds for the purpose of advancing the personal interests of its leaders or members.
Brownell resigned from the NRA’s board of directors in May after about a decade, citing “exciting announcements about new opportunities” related to his Iowa business.
He is a prominent Republican activist in the state who courted multiple presidential candidates in the 2016 caucus cycle.
If the NRA is found to have used its funds for the personal benefit of its leadership, the Internal Revenue Service could revoke its tax-exempt status, triggering a significant financial hit to the politically influential organization.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, notes in the report the NRA delegation that traveled to Russia in 2015 “had advanced knowledge” they would meet with Russian officials identified by the U.S. Treasury Department as foreign assets.
According to the report, Brownell was “advised to avoid meeting with any [Specially Designated Nationals] if that individual could derive a benefit from the interaction. Evidence detailed in the course of this investigation shows that Brownell did meet with sanctioned individuals and that he may have done so to discuss potential future business deals.”
On page six, the report states: “The NRA had full knowledge of the Russian individuals and entities its board members, officers and donors planned to meet in Moscow. In fact, the NRA directly facilitated Brownell’s effort to travel to Moscow early to explore business opportunities with Russian weapons manufacturers.”
In communications with the Senate Finance Committee, the NRA has denied the organization’s ties to the Moscow meetings, telling Sen. Wyden in a letter “certain NRA board members participated in the trip of their own accord.”
Brownell is cited often in the report, including in communications between Butina and NRA leadership, begging the organization to include Brownell in the delegation.
“In order to prevent the collapse of the trip, Butina solicited Brownell to join the trip in his capacity as future President of the NRA, with the full knowledge of NRA staff,” the report states, on page 25. “Documents provided to committee minority staff show that Butina worked closely with conservative political operative Paul Erickson to pressure Brownell into joining to ensure the trip would happen.”
In addition to meeting with the Russian assets, Brownell and others in the NRA delegation also had hour-long meetings with “senior level members of the Russian government,” according to itineraries, briefing materials and other documents provided to the Senate committee.
By Elizabeth Meyer