By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org
NRA lobbyist Marion Hammer has obtained several apparently illegal loans over the years from Unified Sportsmen of Florida, the Tallahassee nonprofit she founded and runs, Florida Bulldog has found.
The most recent loan in 2017, for $200,000, was given to Hammer – who earns $110,000-a-year as the group’s executive director – so she could “refinance and purchase” real estate, according to Unified Sportsmen’s regulatory filings.
Florida Statute 617.0833 prohibits not-for-profit corporations like Unified Sportsmen from loaning money to their directors or officers. “A loan made in violation of this section is a violation of the duty to the corporation of the directors or officers authorizing it or participating in it,” the law says. The loans of charitable assets were approved by the group’s board of directors.
Further, while Unified Sportsmen solicits contributions from the public, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has not made it register, disclose certain information or pay fees as the law requires of nonprofits.
The reason: after a brief inquiry the department decided in February 2018 that Unified Sportsmen is exempt from the registration requirements of the Solicitation of Contributions Act because it only solicits contributions from its own membership. Despite a public records request, the department did not turn over documentation it considered in reaching its decision, or explain why it looked into Unified Sportsmen’s status in the first place.
A ‘proud NRA sell-out’
That decision, formulated during the administration of Republican Agriculture Commissioner and self-proclaimed “proud NRA sell-out” Adam Putnam, was made despite the fact that Unified Sportsmen’s pitch on its application for membership includes a request for a “contribution.”
A request to interview current Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, a Democrat, was ignored.
Hammer, who incorporated Unified Sportsmen in 1977, declined to comment. “Do you expect me to talk with you when you are doing the bidding of anti-gun Democrats?”
Hammer’s Tallahassee attorney is Richard E. Coates. He did not respond to requests for comment.
Coates’ political ties are noteworthy. He served as general counsel to the Republican Party of Florida from 2011-2014 and continues to be paid by the party. He was a member of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ Transition Advisory Committee on Government Operations. In 2011, he represented now-Sen. Rick Scott when the newly elected governor was setting up a blind trust for his financial assets.
Defending gun rights in Florida has been a lucrative occupation for the 80-year-old Hammer. In addition, to her compensation from Unified Sportsmen, the National Rifle Association paid Hammer $404,000 in 2017-2018 “for legislative lobbying in Florida” and consulting services, according to internal reports by the NRA’s secretary.
A Senate inquiry
Over the summer, Hammer was the focus of a Florida Senate inquiry that followed formal complaints by Democrats after a May 13 Florida Bulldog report that Hammer for years had not filed quarterly compensation reports required of lobbying firms and contract lobbyists. Hammer faced potentially heavy fines. But Senate leaders with ties to Hammer, notably Rules Committee chair Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers, chose not to follow the Senate’s rules for how to conduct such an investigation and instead steered the matter to the Office of Legislative Services (OLS) for “review.”
Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton declared the case closed on Aug. 23 after OLS General Counsel Audrey Moore decided that Hammer was not an NRA contract lobbyist but rather an in-house lobbyist for Unified Sportsmen. To reach that opinion, Moore concluded that the NRA secretary’s reports that said Hammer’s compensation was for lobbying are “incorrect” and that the NRA’s payments to Hammer were for various “consulting services.”
Hammer was instructed to amend her lobbyist registration for the years 2016-2019 to show that Unified Sportsmen was in fact a lobbying firm, and to file quarterly compensation reports on its behalf detailing compensation Unified Sportsmen received from the NRA to lobby on its behalf. No fines were assessed.
Florida law prohibits nonprofit corporations from loaning money to their directors or officers. Unified Sportsmen’s tax records show that Hammer has obtained a trio of loans from the group since 1995. Its 2018 return, for the year 2017, explicitly states the $200,000 loan was from the organization to Hammer, that it was approved by the board and that it included a written agreement. Hammer paid $4,238 in interest on the loan.
State records currently list six directors for Unified Sportsmen, including Hammer. Unified President Glen Rubin of Stuart did not respond to a phone message seeking comment. Miami Class III firearms dealer and NRA benefactor Ruben Mendiola said he’s been on the board since the early 1980s. “You sound like a nice guy, but I don’t trust the media. If you want answers about Marion’s finances, you have to ask her. I am not going to give you any information on any deals we have with Marion.”
Board member John Malloy, 82, said he doesn’t remember any details about the loan. “I can’t help you. I’m still listed on the paperwork because they have to fill in something,” he said. “I have not been active except to send my dues in.”
Board members John Patronis of Havana, FL, and Cherry Schroeder of Orlando, could not be reached for comment.
Mission: protect 2nd Amendment rights
Unified Sportsmen of Florida (USF) is a 501(c)(4) charitable organization that on its federal tax returns describes its mission as providing “protection, information and education concerning Second Amendment rights of the US Constitution and gun safety.” Its membership application further describes Unified Sportsmen as “a non-profit membership organization” that is the “Florida Legislative affiliate” of the NRA.
“USF is an independent organization dependent on membership dues and contributions for financial support,” the application says. The blank form applicants complete has a section to choose a level of dues, and includes a space to also add a “contribution.” There is also this disclaimer, “Membership dues and contributions to Unified Sportsmen of Florida are not tax-deductible.”
In 2017, the most recent year for which federal tax returns are available, Unified Sportsmen reported total revenue of just over $248,000. That included about $24,000 in membership dues and $219,460 in contributions, gifts and grants.
Most of that $219,460 apparently was funneled to Unified Sportsmen by the NRA. According to Moore’s investigative report, from 2010 through 2018 the NRA paid the group $216,000 a year in “legislative assistance grants” to lobby the Florida Legislature and the executive branch.
Unified Sportsmen’s tax returns from 2010-2017 reported revenues from contributions, gifts and grants of $1.77 million. If Moore is correct, NRA grants totaled $1.72 million in the same period, indicating that Unified Sportsmen collected about $50,000 in donations at that time.