The palace intrigue at the National Rifle Association deepened late Wednesday night as the gun group filed court papers accusing its second-in-command and top lobbyist of complicity in the recent failed coup against its leader, Wayne LaPierre.
The accusation came in a lawsuit in New York State Supreme Court against Oliver North, the N.R.A.’s former president, who led the attempt to oust Mr. LaPierre shortly before the group’s annual convention in April. The complaint provides fresh detail about the effort against Mr. LaPierre, but it is the involvement of the organization’s No. 2 official, Christopher, W. Cox, that will reverberate.
In the suit, the N.R.A. said that text messages and emails demonstrated that “another errant N.R.A. fiduciary, Chris Cox — once thought by some to be a likely successor for Mr. LaPierre — participated” in what was described as a conspiracy.
The court filing includes text exchanges in which Mr. Cox and a board member appear to be discussing an effort to oust Mr. LaPierre, though the full context is unclear.
In a statement on Thursday, Mr. Cox said: “The allegations against me are offensive and patently false. For over 24 years I have been a loyal and effective leader in this organization. My efforts have always been focused on serving the members of the National Rifle Association, and I will continue to focus all of my energy on carrying out our core mission of defending the Second Amendment.”
The suit — the latest in a series of legal actions stemming from the gun group’s internal turmoil — is likely to send new shock waves through the N.R.A. While Mr. North served as president for just one year, Mr. Cox has worked for the N.R.A. since 1995 and led its lobbying arm since 2002. He has been a leading presence at the organization’s gatherings, reliably serving up red meat for the N.R.A.’s base.
Among other things, he has been a fervent defender of the AR-15, the semiautomatic rifle used in many mass shootings, telling attendees at the group’s convention last year that “we have an AR culture that’s on display all over the exhibit halls this weekend.”
Together, Mr. Cox, 49, and Mr. LaPierre, 69, have been the public faces of the N.R.A., the twin architects of its strategy. But they have had an uneasy relationship, and their staffs are somewhat siloed from each other. Mr. Cox runs the N.R.A.’s lobbying arm, the Institute for Legislative Action, which has a separate media relations team from the N.R.A.’s, and his choice of consultants has also sometimes diverged from Mr. LaPierre’s.
As Mr. North’s coup attempt played out at the convention this spring, some people inside the N.R.A. said Mr. Cox largely kept quiet and appeared to be hedging his bets.
The genesis of the dispute between the N.R.A. and Mr. North is a related legal battle between the N.R.A. and its most prominent contractor, the Oklahoma-based advertising firm Ackerman McQueen, which employed Mr. North. The N.R.A. has sued Ackerman, claiming it withheld documents and records from the gun group, and some officials have suggested the company may also have been overbilling. Ackerman, which has said it did nothing improper, filed a countersuit claiming that it was smeared by the N.R.A.
In yet another lawsuit, the N.R.A. has accused Ackerman of breaching confidentiality clauses in its contract and smearing Mr. LaPierre.
The new lawsuit seeks to block Mr. North’s attempt to have the N.R.A. pay his legal fees, which he has sought as he fields requests to cooperate with other litigation as well as a Senate inquiry.
“The N.R.A. believes that Col. North seeks payments from the Association to which he is not entitled,” the N.R.A.’s outside counsel, William A. Brewer III, said in a statement. (Mr. North is a retired Marine lieutenant colonel who first came to prominence during the Iran Contra hearings.) “The N.R.A. alleges that Col. North breached his fiduciary obligations — in a coordinated attack against the N.R.A. and Wayne LaPierre that involved others motivated by their own economic self-interest,” Mr. Brewer added.
In addition to implicating Mr. Cox, the new lawsuit claims that another N.R.A. board member, the former Oklahoma congressman Dan Boren, participated in the effort to oust Mr. LaPierre, and presents a piece of evidence intended to shed light on the overbilling question.
Mr. Boren is close to Ackerman and works for another Ackerman client, the Oklahoma-based Chickasaw Nation. In an exhibit filed in the latest complaint, Mr. Boren expressed concern to a Chickasaw official that Ackerman was billing the N.R.A. for “full salary to these employees that may have been working on our accounts,” adding, “I bet Ackerman is in trouble on this one.”
Another key issue in the N.R.A.’s battle with Ackerman is the role of Mr. North, who was employed by Ackerman while serving as the N.R.A.’s president; the N.R.A. has claimed that the arrangement was improper and that Ackerman wouldn’t show the N.R.A. a copy of Mr. North’s contract for months. Mr. North has said Mr. LaPierre helped negotiate the contract.
Mr. North is said to have sparked the coup by delivering a threatening message to a key aide to Mr. LaPierre shortly before the N.R.A. convention in April, warning that damaging revelations about the N.R.A.’s spending on Mr. LaPierre’s clothing and travel would be released if he did not step aside. He also said Mr. LaPierre would be well rewarded financially if he stepped down. Mr. LaPierre refused to step aside, and the embarrassing material was indeed released, though it is not clear by whom.
The latest suit calls this “a conspiracy by North to extort the N.R.A.”
Any move against Mr. Cox could lead to further litigation. He is one of three senior executives who are contractually entitled to receive their base pay for one to four years if they are dismissed without cause, or in some other instances, according to Massachusetts State records reviewed by The New York Times.
The N.R.A., however, seems to be losing patience with paying those it considers to have betrayed Mr. LaPierre.
“Simply put, the N.R.A. exists to fight for the Second Amendment,” the group said in its latest suit, “not pay other people’s bills.”