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NRA chief sought help of group's ad agency in trying to buy $5 million mansion

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 8/7/2019 Mark Maremont
National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre speaks at the American Conservative Union 2016 annual conference in Maryland: NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre© REUTERS / Gary Cameron NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre

National Rifle Association Chief Executive Wayne LaPierre was in discussions to have the group’s then-outside advertising agency help him buy a Dallas mansion last year for more than $5 million, but the deal fell through, according to people familiar with the matter.

The aborted house deal and conflicting explanations for why it fell apart are coming to the fore as the New York attorney general’s office is probing the NRA, including Mr. LaPierre’s dealings with the ad agency. The ad agency, Ackerman McQueen, recently turned over information about the contemplated house purchase to the AG’s office, according to a person familiar with the matter.

The discussions about the house purchase occurred early last year, shortly after the mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Fla. Mr. LaPierre was concerned about his security and was interested in another residence besides his publicly known address in northern Virginia, according to people familiar with the matter.

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An NRA spokesman said the idea to buy the house was proposed by the late Angus McQueen, then co-CEO of the ad firm, as an investment that would be owned by senior Ackerman executives. “The deal was vetoed by the NRA after its full terms—including Ackerman’s intent to spend NRA money—became known to Wayne LaPierre,” said William A. Brewer III, an outside NRA attorney. “Not a cent of NRA money was ultimately spent. Any suggestion to the contrary is untrue.”

That genesis of the discussions is disputed by others familiar with the transaction, who said the purchase was Mr. LaPierre’s idea and was to be funded by the NRA through a structure involving a limited-liability company. Ackerman was going to help manage the property, according to these people.

Mr. LaPierre and his wife, Susan, twice visited the mansion, in an exclusive golf community outside Dallas, according to one of these people, and also toured the golf club.

The LaPierres were interested enough to have the NRA cut a $70,000 check to Ackerman as earnest money for a contemplated offer, according to this person.

It was Mr. McQueen who pulled the plug on the arrangement, this person said, after learning more about the deal, including that Mr. LaPierre wanted a membership at the exclusive Vaquero golf club adjacent to the mansion. That made him doubt that security was the real aim, this person said.

Ackerman McQueen then returned the $70,000, this person said. Mr. McQueen died last month at age 74.

In a statement, Ackerman called the NRA’s allegation that Mr. McQueen was behind the mansion-purchase effort “blatantly false.”

“The truth is that Mr. LaPierre decided to proactively propose his plan to leave his current residence and purchase a new residence,” the agency said. “Acting outside the parties’ Services Agreement, Mr. LaPierre sought the involvement of Ackerman McQueen. Ackerman McQueen refused to proceed with this transaction. In fact, Mr. LaPierre’s actions in this regard led to Ackerman McQueen’s loss of faith in Mr. LaPierre’s decision-making.”

A spokeswoman for the New York AG’s office declined to comment on the real-estate issue.

The NRA’s board already was simmering with internal discontent about earlier revelations of expenses that Ackerman picked up for the NRA chief. According to leaked letters from Ackerman McQueen to the NRA, Mr. LaPierre charged more than $540,000 to the ad firm for clothing from a Beverly Hills, Calif., shop and for travel to Italy, Hungary, the Bahamas and other locales, some of it by private jet.

Mr. LaPierre and the NRA have said the travel and wardrobe costs were justified for NRA business reasons. The NRA reimbursed the ad firm for the travel costs, but not for the clothing.

The NRA’s then-president, Oliver North, left the NRA’s board after trying to get it to investigate the allegations that Mr. LaPierre may have mismanaged the nonprofit organization’s funds. Three other board members resigned last week after trying and failing to get the NRA’s board to launch an external investigation.

The NRA has said its board audit committee has fully vetted the transactions.

Until a falling-out earlier this year, the NRA, based in Fairfax, Va., and Oklahoma City-based Ackerman McQueen had a close relationship dating back more than 30 years. Messrs. LaPierre and McQueen talked almost every day, and sometimes several times a day, according to a 2002 deposition of Mr. McQueen.

The NRA sued Ackerman in April, claiming the ad firm was refusing to comply with demands to produce documentation backing up its bills to the NRA. The ad firm denied that allegation. The NRA has since terminated its contract with Ackerman and the two sides are locked in litigation.

Andrew Arulanandam, managing director of NRA public affairs, said in a statement that the allegation that the NRA was planning to fund the mansion purchase “is yet another example of Ackerman twisting the truth to promote a false narrative.”

The 10,000-square-foot mansion, in a Dallas suburb called Westlake, was priced at $6.2 million around the time the LaPierres were looking. It is a “French Country Estate” on a lake and has four bedrooms and nine baths—including “his and hers master baths”—according to the listing. It’s still on the market for $5.25 million.

The listing broker for the house, Jeff Watson, said that a couple from out of state looked at the house early last year, but he didn’t know their names and said they never put in a formal offer.

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