RALEIGH, N.C. (WGHP) – Much has been made of the fact that the National Rifle Association is continuing this week with its convention today through Sunday in Houston, just four days and 277 miles removed from the massacre of 21 people – including 19 children – by an 18-year-old with an assault rifle.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott pulled out of speaking at the convention, but former President Donald Trump, Sen. Ted Cruz, Sen. John Cornyn and a host of others are on the program in Houston — including North Carolina’s own Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson. Robinson’s presence shouldn’t be much of a surprise, given that he made his political name not in elected office but in a social media diatribe about the Second Amendment. Unsurprisingly Robinson’s speech in itself has drawn negative comments from Democratic parents because of its timing.
But what might be a surprise is the tagline below his image on the digital poster promoting the event: “NRA board member.” That didn’t appear below any of the other of the most prominent speakers.
The first question this brought was: When was Robinson added to the board, how long would he serve, and what does that exactly mean?
The second question is: How is it OK for an elected official to be on the board of an organization that throws its significant financial support behind politicians and organizations that support their mission. That’s fair for the NRA, but why would that not be a conflict for Robinson – or any other elected leaders?
The search for the answer to the second question became easier than the first.
Is it OK?
Chris Cooper, a professor at Western Carolina University and expert in elections, had a simple answer to a complicated question about ethical rights and parallels. For instance, could U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-California) serve on the board of Planned Parenthood?
“There is no prohibition unless the elected official stands to gain financially,” Cooper wrote in an email to WGHP. “So, I guess Pelosi could theoretically serve on the Planned Parenthood Board and Robinson is free to serve in the NRA board “unless he gets a cut of the NRA t-shirt sales.”
Asher Hildebrand, a professor in Duke University’s School of Government and a former Democratic campaign official, offered insights from his former career.
“Members of Congress are allowed to serve on ‘non-profit’ boards as long as they are treated the same as any other board member (they are currently prohibited from serving on corporate boards)” he said. “Also worth pointing out that in most cases the political activities of groups like the NRA and Planned Parenthood are carried out by affiliated PACs, c4 organizations, or 527s, which usually have separate boards (if they have boards at all).
“So if Robinson is on the main NRA board, he wouldn’t necessarily be involved in political giving decisions.”
Hildebrand also suggested the question be asked of state ethics officials – as had representatives of the UNC School of Government – and WGHP reached out to the North Carolina State Ethics Commission. But the response was not so simple.
“I cannot comment on whether an official’s actions are restricted by the Ethics Act,” Kathleen Edwards, executive director of the commission, wrote in an email. “Such determinations are made in the context of the Commission’s complaint process in which the Commission itself is closely involved.
“Ethics Act provisions concerning actions taken by a public official in their official capacity include: Conflicts of Interest: Restricting executive branch officials from taking actions in their official capacity if the official knows that the action would result in a “reasonably foreseeable financial benefit” to certain individuals or entities with which the official is “associated,” a term that is defined at G.S. 138A-3(67).”
“Although it may restrict certain official actions which would financially benefit an associated entity, the Ethics Act does not restrict service on a non-profit or for-profit board,” she said.
She included examples of opinions from the commission that addressed roles in advertising (but not on a conference’s agenda), using state funds for some forms of advertising for the organization that uses the official’s “name, picture or voice” or accepting gifts from registered lobbyists who may be doing business with the official or officials.
Robinson’s role on the board would appear within the scope of that outline, but that brings us back to the first question. The answer to that remains unclear.
A listing and specifications of the NRA’s board of directors are not readily apparent on the organization’s website. There is no link or tab, and if you search for the term “board of directors,” you find references to actions but not members of criteria or meeting schedules.
Those answers surely are published somewhere – as the proprietor of a 501(c)(4) tax-exempt nonprofit, the NRA would be required to disclose – but a database of nonprofits shows only the officers of the NRA Foundation.
A basic search of Google is not much more helpful. You will find some ancillary and outdated information. For instance, one listing of a board – with dozens of members – includes some of the celebrities we know have been affiliated, such as Oliver North, Charlton Heston, Ted Nugent and Dean Cain, and also proud NASCAR team owner Richard Childress of Lexington, who resigned amid the problems the organization is facing about its spending.
No apparent list included Robinson as a member of the NRA board. There was no indication of when and how he was added or what his role might be. the NRA and its foundation are listed separately and have separate websites, but it was unclear how those organizations relate and whether board members serve on both. the organization also has a Political Victory Fund.
WGHP reached out to the NRA with these questions. Media inquiries can be submitted through a form that generates an automated response. There is a promise that “someone will be in contact with you shortly.”
More than 18 hours later, those questions remain unanswered.