When the National Rifle Association needed more legal firepower in New York state last year, the gun rights group brought aboard an unlikely lawyer: a Democrat who had no experience in Second Amendment litigation.
By this spring, William Brewer III had emerged as a top counselor to NRA chief executive Wayne LaPierre and a victor — for now, at least — in a civil war that he helped set in motion and that is ripping apart the powerful gun lobby.
The ugly public fight has led to an exodus of high-level officials and warring accusations of financial impropriety. At the center of the fray is Brewer, a brash lawyer who has drawn ethics complaints and has a reputation for escalating disputes into pricey legal battles.
Several NRA veterans accuse Brewer of instigating an almost Shakespearean feud to protect his bottom line and growing influence. According to internal board correspondence, his small law firm billed $24 million in fees in 13 months — leading top NRA board members to demand early this year that the organization stop paying until they could review the bills.
But LaPierre sided with Brewer, saying that the lawyer’s bills were appropriate and that he was bringing long-overdue scrutiny to the nonprofit group’s workings.
“The NRA has full confidence in Bill Brewer and his law firm,” LaPierre said in a statement. “The firm is creative, dedicated, and effective — and is helping to protect and advance the NRA’s interests in multiple venues.”
Brewer said he came under attack once he began examining lucrative financial deals inside the organization that he thought posed conflicts of interest. His firm said those complaining about its bills have a misinformed view of its work but declined to elaborate.
“Questions regarding our fees — which arose almost one year after we were hired — came only after people, who long supported our firm’s work, themselves came under scrutiny for their conduct,” Brewer said in a wide-ranging interview last week, sitting in his suite on the 59th floor of his Dallas office with soaring views of the city.
Today, after helping to jettison NRA President Oliver North, rival lawyers and other key NRA lieutenants, Brewer counsels LaPierre on some of the group’s most important decisions, including legal strategy, management and public relations, said multiple people familiar with his role.
Those who have been pushed out shared a common concern: that Brewer ran up excessive fees and then cemented his role by overstating claims about the organization’s legal jeopardy and the potential conflicts of his critics, according to the people and internal documents.
With Brewer’s backing, LaPierre this spring turned against Ackerman McQueen, the marketing firm that had been the NRA’s image maker for more than three decades — a company run by Brewer’s father-in-law and brother-in-law.
“Mr. Brewer is orchestrating a purge of every person who disagrees with his flawed strategy,” Ackerman McQueen said in a statement.
Brewer rejected that. “The truth is, a handful of faithless fiduciaries tried to ‘purge’ the NRA of its elected leadership by extorting Wayne LaPierre,” he said. “They failed.”
Brewer, whose eponymous law firm also has an office in New York, has a history of confrontational and high-priced legal fights, according to former employees and lawyers who encountered him in cases and a review of thousands of pages of court records.
Ted Lyon, a personal injury lawyer in Dallas who has battled Brewer in the past, said he was shocked that Brewer had “convinced the NRA that he was some type of star litigator.”
In 2016, a Texas judge sanctioned Brewer, finding that he took actions that could have improperly tainted a jury pool. The court found Brewer’s attempts “to avoid responsibility and accountability for his conduct to be at the very least unpersuasive and at the worst in bad faith, unprofessional, and unethical,” the judge wrote.
Four lawyers’ associations filed a friend-of-the-court argument in August in favor of the punishment.
Citing the sanctity of the promise of a fair trial, the legal groups said they “can imagine nothing … more poisonous to this ancient ideal than William A. Brewer III’s behavior.”
Brewer, who has appealed, says his firm represents “our clients ethically but zealously.” He said he is disappointed that his peers have lined up against him.
But, he added, “it’s not the first time we’ve stood alone.”
An unusual choice
Brewer, 67, does not have the typical profile of a lawyer for the NRA, one of President Donald Trump’s staunchest allies. Campaign filings show that he has donated to numerous Democrats, including Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Beto O’Rourke.
But in March 2018, the NRA was dealing with a challenge by New York state officials to its Carry Guard insurance, which provides coverage to firearms owners who shoot someone and claim self-defense. The state Financial Services Department found that the NRA had illegally marketed what critics call “murder insurance.” Insurers, facing millions in state fines, demand that the organization cover the penalty.
The NRA wanted a lawyer with ties to New York Democrats. Steve Hart, the NRA board’s lawyer, enlisted Brewer, according to people familiar with his involvement. Hart did not respond to a request for comment.
When New York officials warned financial institutions and insurers that a relationship with the NRA could harm their corporate reputations and jeopardize public safety, Brewer urged the NRA to sue the state, arguing that state officials were targeting an advocacy group whose views differed from their own.
From there, Brewer pressed to take on other matters, said people familiar with internal discussions. That included the organization’s response to a broader threat: At the time, Letitia James, the leading candidate to become the New York state attorney general, was campaigning on a pledge to investigate the NRA’s nonprofit status amid reports of financial irregularities.
Brewer said he recommended to LaPierre that he prepare by auditing the group’s spending and vendor contracts, including those of Ackerman McQueen, its largest. For 38 years, the Oklahoma City-based advertising agency had served as a powerful adjunct to the NRA, promoting the group’s combative, no-compromise stance on gun rights.
The inquiry put him on a collision course with his father-in-law, Angus McQueen, who founded the firm — another larger-than-life figure of the same generation, who died in July. Brewer said he did not view the matter as a conflict of interest.
Brewer said people within the NRA began raising questions about Ackerman’s billing and its hiring of the group’s officials, such as North. North had a multimillion-dollar contract to host a series produced by the firm, documents show.
A lawyer for North declined to comment.
The McQueen family grew suspicious of Brewer’s questions and worried that he sought to take over some of the firm’s public relations business, according to people familiar with their views.
In a statement, Ackerman McQueen accused Brewer of “pursuing a personal vendetta against his own family and their business.” The firm said it has cooperated with every audit requested by the NRA and never overcharged the group, adding that LaPierre approved all expenses.
The company alleges that Brewer went after Ackerman McQueen “to serve as a distraction from the failure of NRA executives and its board to properly fulfill its oversight duties.”
Current NRA officials rejected that, saying the audit was part of a move to increase oversight. Brewer’s firm said that the focus on Ackerman was not personal and that the agency stonewalled requests for information. And the firm dismissed as absurd the idea that it was trying to steal the public relations business.
“The NRA pursued documents from several major vendors, not just Ackerman. But Ackerman, singularly, resisted,” Sarah Rogers, a partner in the Brewer firm, said in a statement.
The audit set off a bitter legal fight, fracturing the alliance between the NRA and its longtime marketing agency. It also exposed lavish spending by LaPierre that flowed through Ackerman McQueen, such as hundreds of thousands of dollars in charges at a Beverly Hills clothing boutique and on foreign travel, invoices show. The NRA has defended the expenditures as necessary.
Brewer first made a splash in Dallas legal circles in the 1980s, when he co-founded a boutique litigation firm that offered big salaries and imported the brash tactics of Brewer’s native New York to Texas.
Bickel & Brewer’s hardball methods drew criticism from the traditional Texas bar.
Depositions were drawn out for days, as Brewer’s clients claimed they couldn’t say for certain what their names were, where they were born or what they owned, records show. Judges complained about overly combative practices that seemed aimed at wearing down the court and opposing counsel.
Fellow lawyers called them “Rambo tactics” — a term Brewer embraced.
“We don’t believe we should earn our living from being nice to other lawyers,” Brewer told the Texas Lawyer in a 1988 article that described his firm as the poster child for “scorched-earth” litigation.
With Brewer and other lawyers deploying such maneuvers, the state bar sought to rein them in, and in 1989, the Texas Supreme Court adopted a new code threatening to sanction lawyers “who perceive that they are retained to win at all costs without regard to fundamental principles of justice.”
Friends say Brewer ruffled feathers because he challenged Texas’s insular legal industry.
He “would do all that was within the bounds of ethics to advance the cause of his client — and the cause of justice,” said John Sexton, a former president of New York University and dean of its law school.
Some clients, too, praised Brewer’s approach.
“I’ve worked with Bill for decades for two reasons: He delivers time and time again and exemplifies the highest of ethical standards,” said Howard Meyers, the head of a global lead manufacturing company that hired Brewer to fend off bondholders in a multibillion-dollar bankruptcy fight.
But some former associates said Brewer sought to maximize fees at the expense of clients.
In interviews, 10 former employees said the Brewer firm pushed lawyers to generate big bills and encouraged “make-work” tasks.
“Bill was an excellent lawyer from a strategy and content standpoint,” said one lawyer who left the firm in the 1990s and, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of retribution. But, the lawyer said, “we would do work that I considered clerical work” to meet the billing goals. “You can always find something more to do. It was a lot more expensive for the client.”
Michael J. Collins, a partner in Brewer’s firm, called that “a misinformed view of the way we manage the firm and its professionals,” adding that “all time charged to client matters is scrutinized internally for accuracy, transparency and value.”
Brewer said his fees reflect the value of what he provides clients.
“Frankly, I’m disappointed some don’t always see the utility in the way in which we go through the process,” he said. “That’s generally not the clients.”
Methods under scrutiny
At times, Brewer’s process has led to eye-popping totals.
Over the years, his firm was paid $80 million for a wide range of matters by the Wyly brothers, Texas entrepreneurs who made billions in computers, energy and retail, according to a family adviser.
When the brothers came under federal investigation for the use of offshore tax havens, Brewer urged them to fight the allegations, even as other wealthy figures settled similar cases by paying negotiated fines, according to people involved in the case and news reports at the time.
The Securities and Exchange Commission ultimately charged the Wylys with fraudulently hiding half a billion dollars.
After the death of Charles Wyly in 2011, the family parted ways with Brewer. The brothers were ordered to pay $198 million for tax fraud, and Sam Wyly filed for bankruptcy protection. In 2016, he and his brother’s estate were ordered to pay $1.1 billion in back taxes and penalties.
A spokesman for the Wylys declined to comment, citing a pending federal settlement agreement.
Brewer defended his work for the family.
“I thought we successfully represented the Wylys,” he said. “Some things turned out badly for them after I was no longer in charge.”
Brewer’s methods also drew scrutiny in a 2014 case in which he represented Titeflex, a pipe manufacturer that had been sued by the family of a young man who died in a house fire.
Texas state Judge Ruben Reyes found that Brewer’s firm hired pollsters to conduct a telephone “push poll” that provided misleading information to people involved in the case and could have tainted the trial.
“The Court finds Mr. Brewer’s conduct disrespectful to the judicial system,” the judge wrote in 2016, adding that it “falls in the category of misconduct which is highly prejudicial and inimical to a fair trial by an impartial jury.”
The judge ordered Brewer to attend 10 hours of remedial ethics classes and pay a $130,000 fine.
Brewer and a fellow lawyer who worked on the case said they were conducting a neutral survey to prepare for trial, not a push poll. Brewer’s lawyer, citing experts in survey research, argued that Brewer was using a widely accepted litigation tool.
Brewer appealed the decision, which was upheld and increased to $177,000. The Texas Supreme Court is set to hear his second appeal next month.
“I just think he was wrong,” Brewer said of the judge, adding that he is optimistic that the sanction will be reversed.
Titeflex ended up settling the case with the family and homeowners. Internally, company officials complained that Brewer delivered an unsatisfactory outcome while charging steep fees, according to three people familiar with the concerns.
Lyon, who represented the family that sued Titeflex, said Brewer would “send four lawyers to a deposition that one lawyer could easily handle.” A Titeflex official and the Brewer firm declined to comment on its fees.
In another case, a Texas court disqualified Brewer — from a suit in which he represented an heir to the Texas billionaire H.L. Hunt suing his father — because Brewer was found to have represented the father. Brewer said in court papers that opposing counsel tried to push him out for “tactical” reasons, adding that his work helped resolve the case.
In September 2018, a federal judge in Virginia reprimanded Brewer after he did not disclose the Texas court sanction to a federal court in Virginia as he represented the NRA in a lawsuit with an insurance broker.
“These are very serious allegations,” U.S. District Judge Liam O’Grady told Brewer before ejecting him from the case. “They’re findings of bad faith.”
Brewer told The Washington Post that he believed he disclosed what was necessary, noting that the matter is under appeal.
After he was benched, the NRA settled the case for undisclosed terms in November 2018, court records show.
‘Draining NRA cash’
Late last year, NRA budget officers began warning about staggering legal bills from Brewer’s firm, according to people familiar with the communications. Since March 2018, his firm’s fees had routinely topped $1.5 million a month, according to internal documents.
In a Feb. 26 letter, North and board Vice Presidents Richard Childress and Carolyn Meadows told LaPierre that they believed Brewer’s retainer agreement was not properly executed and demanded that the NRA cease payments to him until they could discuss the matter.
“We have a fiduciary duty that needs to be urgently addressed, with you and if you wish, Mr. Brewer,” the three wrote in their letter, the contents of which were described to The Post.
Brewer moved quickly to demonstrate his value to the organization.
In internal presentations, the lawyer warned of impending legal threats that he said he was uniquely equipped to address, according to people familiar with the meetings.
He said the NRA could face significant criminal liability in an ongoing investigation of Russian gun activist Maria Butina, who had cultivated ties to the NRA, the people said, as well as exposure in congressional inquiries into Russian connections to the group.
Brewer, who is not a criminal lawyer, claimed in one March meeting that North could be implicated, according to one of the people.
Federal prosecutors had already told NRA lawyers that the organization and its officers were not under criminal investigation, according to the people familiar with the conversations.
Others familiar with Brewer’s presentations said they greatly inflated the legal risk, with one former prosecutor warning other NRA advisers that Brewer was a “charlatan.”
Brendan Sullivan, a longtime white-collar defense lawyer representing North, later called Brewer’s presentation something “a fifth grader might have put together,” according to people who heard his reaction. Sullivan declined to comment.
Brewer declined to address the substance of his meetings, saying they were privileged. But he said he did not think the other NRA lawyers addressed the legal and reputational risks the group faced, adding that they were “assuming away all of the problems that needed to be confronted.”
In March, North pushed the NRA to hire an outside auditor to examine Brewer’s bills, internal correspondence shows.
But LaPierre emailed Brewer to tell him to ignore the request, according to a message read to The Post.
“My office, not any member of the board, has the authority to hire and oversee legal counsel,” the NRA chief wrote in the email. “Your engagement is valid, is vital to the survival of the NRA and is well known to the entire board. Please keep up the good work and disregard this and other missives you may receive.”
LaPierre had been warning North to stop inquiring about the legal bills, saying he had a conflict of interest because of his financial relationship with Ackerman McQueen, according to internal documents. But North kept up the pressure. “The Brewer invoices are draining NRA cash at a mindboggling speed,” he and Childress wrote in an April letter to NRA officials obtained by The Post.
That month, the fight burst into the open.
On April 12, Brewer sued Ackerman McQueen on the NRA’s behalf, accusing the firm of concealing how it was spending money under its $40 million contract. The suit also questioned the propriety of North’s contract with NRA-TV and Ackerman McQueen, which North said LaPierre had authorized.
Then LaPierre took on North directly. On the eve of the organization’s convention in Indianapolis, he publicly released a letter to the board in which he claimed that the NRA president had tried to extort him by threatening to release a “devastating account” of the group’s financial status if LaPierre did not resign and drop the suit against Ackerman McQueen. LaPierre urged nominating committee members not to support North for another term, board members told their colleagues.
North was forced to relinquish his post as president. As he did so, he warned that the NRA was in “a clear crisis.”
In court filings this summer, the former NRA president said that Brewer blocked him when he sought to learn more about the group’s finances.
“Each time that North raised concerns about potential financial misconduct and tried to retain professionals to correct any wrongdoing, North’s efforts were thwarted by LaPierre and Brewer,” his lawyers wrote.
Meadows, North’s successor, has defended Brewer in statements issued by his firm, saying her previous concerns have been assuaged.
“Bill and his team operate with openness and transparency,” Meadows said in a statement, adding, “I have never worked with an outside law firm that is more on call, attentive and positively in tune to the needs of their client.”
The NRA is now locked in legal battles on multiple fronts. Amid the turmoil, seven board members have resigned, and some of the group’s top strategists and advisers have been pushed out, including Christopher Cox, an NRA lobbyist whom LaPierre long described as his heir apparent. The NRA chief has accused Cox of conspiring with North, a charge Cox denies.
Last month brought a new defenestration — this time of lawyers. LaPierre announced that the NRA was severing relations with Charles Cooper, its longtime Second Amendment defender. Michael Volkov, its outside lawyer who had been handling the Russia investigation, also resigned.
In a statement released by Brewer’s firm, the NRA chief accused the lawyers of being part of the conspiracy against him.
Cooper, who had represented the NRA for the past three decades, said he had always been loyal to the group, “not to any individual officers or directors of the organization.” Volkov declined to comment.
Meanwhile, the New York attorney general has issued subpoenas seeking records of LaPierre’s jet-setting lifestyle, including his efforts to buy a $6 million mansion with NRA money, and has sought information about why some of his spending was kept a secret from the NRA board, according to people familiar with the requests.
Meadows said in a statement that the NRA has offered to cooperate with the inquiry and called the claims of misspending “baseless allegations.”
In late August, New York investigators spent a day interviewing North. Among their questions, according to people familiar with the matter, were queries about Brewer’s fees and growing role in the NRA.
This article was originally published on How hard-charging Dallas lawyer William Brewer III helped fuel a civil war inside the NRA