The term “fiduciary” is bandied about without much explanation or definition. That said, it is a critically important to understand what it means when it comes to an organization.
Investopedia defines it this way:
A fiduciary is a person or organization that acts on behalf of another person or persons, putting their clients’ interest ahead of their own, with a duty to preserve good faith and trust. Being a fiduciary thus requires being bound both legally and ethically to act in the other’s best interests.
While they are talking about a person who handles your finances, it is equally applicable to anyone who serves on the board of a non-profit like the National Rifle Association.
The website Charity Lawyer puts it this way when talking about the fiduciary responsibilities of a board member of a non-profit organization.
The board collectively, and directors/trustees individually, owe fiduciary duties to the nonprofit organization they serve. In essence, exercising fiduciary duties means that board members have a duty to act with care and in the best interest of the organization and remain loyal to its mission, as opposed to acting in their own interest or the interest of the CEO/Executive Director they supervise. (emphasis added)
So what are the fiduciary duties of a board member?
Under New York law a board member has three fiduciary duties: the duty of care, the duty of loyalty, and the duty of obedience. To assist new or potential nonprofit board members, the Charities Bureau publishes a booklet outlining what these mean. Using their words plus others let’s take them in order.
Duty of Care
The duty of care mean that board members should give give reasonable attention and care to providing organizational oversight. There is no precise definition of what is meant by reasonable but it should include, at the minimum, that members attend board meetings, they read the reports, and that they have knowledge of the organization’s finances. New York says that “directors must act in “good faith” using the “degree of diligence, care and skill” which prudent people would use in similar positions and under similar circumstances. (Remember the NRA still operates under NY law because the Board in 1992 ignored the warnings of Director and law professor Joe Olson.)
Among the item mentioned by the Charities Bureau on duty of care include a whistleblower policy, that the minutes reflect dissenting votes, that there is a clear process for major obligations, and that monthly financial reports are reviewed by board members.
I would say that Oliver North and Richard Childress were exercising the duty of care when they expressed concerns about the enormous legal billings from William Brewer III.
Duty of Loyalty
The duty of loyalty is owed to the organization meaning that directors are mandated to work in the interests of the organization and not their own self-interest. While the NRA does have a conflict of interest policy and disclosures are made, I have to wonder if it is anything more than lip service when someone like a Marion Hammer receives hundreds of thousands of dollars annually.
Charity Lawyer notes:
The fiduciary duty of loyalty of board members is the responsibility to act in the interests of the non-profit, those it serves, and those donating funds for operations, as opposed to their own self-interest…
It can also be said that board members have a duty not to act in the personal best interest of the non-profit CEO (lead staff member) where that interest conflicts with the nonprofit’s best interest. Hiring the CEO, setting the salary, and providing oversight and accountability of such CEO, is among the most important responsibilities of a non-profit board.
The duties of care and loyalty are the basics of all fiduciary responsibilities. The law recognizes what is called the “business judgment rule”. This protects board members if they exercise these two duties with diligence and prudence as courts have held.
I came across this from the major law firm IceMiller LLP with regard to the fiduciary duties when dealing with an insolvent or near insolvent corporation. While the NRA asserts it is far from insolvent, they are, however, in Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings.
Applying the business judgment rule, courts will ordinarily not scrutinize corporate decision-making if the decision was made through a valid exercise of the board’s business judgment. Essentially, corporate fiduciaries who act in good faith, make informed decisions, and do not personally benefit from their corporate actions can rest easier knowing their actions will not be scrutinized after-the-fact with the benefit of hindsight. The business judgment rule facilitates prudent risk-taking and forgives reasonable mistakes in judgment.
A recent interview that Michael Bane had with MidwayUSA’s Larry Potterfield brought something to mind. When Michael asked him about the NRA’s turmoil, Mr. Potterfield insisted that it was in fine shape and there wasn’t really any turmoil because that is what Wayne LaPierre assured him personally.
Think about that if you are a director and not merely a contributor like Mr. Potterfield. Would a court hold that the business judgment rule applied and that you fulfilled your fiduciary duties to make an informed decision if you merely relied on the assurances of Wayne LaPierre in the face of all the other contradictory information out there? I will get into more specifics in a moment.
Duty of Obedience
The duty of obedience means that the board has a fiduciary responsibility to ensure that the organization is abiding by its stated mission and is complying with all state and federal laws. New York goes further and includes abiding by its internal governance documents and policies. In this case, that would mean the NRA bylaws and its internal governance documents requiring board approval for major contracts such as that with Brewer, Attorneys and Counselors.
The NRA’s stated mission on its IRS Form 990 says:
Firearms safety, education, and training, and advocacy on behalf of safe and responsible gun owners.
You may remember that US District Court Judge William Campbell, Jr. allowed David Dell’Aquila’s class action lawsuit against the NRA over misuse of donor fund to continue. He did dismiss it against Wayne LaPierre and the NRA Foundation but found that the expenditures of the NRA for Wayne’s clothing and trips and Brewer’s legal fees may not have been in furtherance of the NRA’s mission. That suit is on administrative hold while the bankruptcy is still ongoing.
NRA Bankruptcy and Special Meeting
The Board of Directors is holding a called Special Meeting this coming Sunday, March 14th, in Dallas, Texas. It is widely assumed that one of the action items will be an explicit ex post facto approval of the bankruptcy filing.
The sole purpose of the meeting is to provide a briefing to the Board regarding the NRA’s reorganization plan and the legal matters overseen by the Special Litigation Committee, and to take any necessary action directly related to those matters.
Judge Phillip Journey, a Kansas state judge and NRA Director, has asserted, correctly in my opinion, that the Board was kept in the dark about the plan to declare bankruptcy. The formation of the Special Litigation Committee never mentioned a planned bankruptcy as he told Stephen Gutowski of the Free Beacon.
Journey said he had voted to support the committee, but had no idea the group’s leadership and legal advisers had planned to go into bankruptcy. He disputed NRA filings that claimed board members were properly informed. Those filings were signed by embattled executive vice president Wayne LaPierre, who was not present at the meeting when the committee was discussed, according to Journey. The Kansas jurist believes the law has been violated and he has a duty to report it to the court.
“It certainly was a fraud perpetrated on the court,” Journey said. “I told them all when I got on the board, ‘Look, I’m a judge. I’m a mandatory reporter. Whatever we do, we got to be on the up and up.'”
I believe Judge Journey not only recognized his fiduciary duty of care but his duty as a officer of the court when he filed his Motion for an Examiner. He followed President Ronald Reagan’s dictum – “trust, but verify” – when it came to assurances from LaPierre and William Brewer. He looked at the New York Attorney General’s dissolution suit and recognized that there was too much there to just pass it off as a vendetta against the NRA.
The leads me to the the US Trustee’s filing in the bankruptcy case objecting to the appointment of William Brewer and his firm as “special counsel”. For those that don’t know, the US Trustee is an officer of the court whose primary rationale is to “promote the integrity and efficiency of the bankruptcy system for the benefit of all stakeholders–debtors, creditors, and the public.” In other words, their job is to protect the process so it isn’t abused.
The US Trustee strongly objected to the appointment of Brewer, Attorneys and Counselors, as a special counsel to the NRA in the Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings. They assert that the services provided by Brewer do not fall within the constraints of bankruptcy law and that it has “divided loyalties and conflicts of interest.”
They go on to add:
These disqualifying conflicts are compounded by BAC’s failure to disclose them in the Application and by BAC’s failure to disclose all of its pre-petition compensation
Among the things the US Trustee asserts that Brewer did not disclose were the family relationship between Brewer and the McQueens, the allegations against the firm’s billing in two cases in which he was counsel (NYAG and Oliver North), and failure to disclose that Brewer himself was precluded from participating in any of the AckMac cases by the US District Court for Northern District of Texas. The Trustee said it shouldn’t be their responsibility to “ferret out” complete disclosures. This failure to make disclosures were grounds enough to prevent Brewer and his firm from serving as special counsel.
They detail what they call “adverse interests” against the estate. In other words, work that Brewer is doing that is not in the interest of the creditors nor in the real interests of the NRA as an organization. This is really the meat of their objection:
These adverse interests include:
a. potential claims by the Debtors’ estates against BAC for fraudulent conveyance based on allegations of billing improprieties raised by a former NRA president, a First VP, four members of the NRA’s Board of Directors, and the NYAG Action;
b. conflicted loyalties BAC may have between its own interests and those of the NRA in the NYAG Action, as well as in an action the NRA brought against its former president, Oliver North, in which Mr. North alleges he suffered retaliation from the NRA leadership when he raised concerns over BAC’s legal fees (the “Oliver North Action”);
c. conflicted loyalties BAC may have in the NYAG Action and generally between the interests of the NRA and those of Mr. LaPierre, based on BAC’s prior representations of Mr. LaPierre, and the steps Mr. LaPierre is alleged to have taken to stonewall internal inquiries regarding BAC’s fees; and
d. conflicted loyalties BAC may have because Ackerman McQueen is adverse to the Debtors in at least three lawsuits for which BAC is sought to be retained to represent the Debtors, when BAC’s named partner is married to the sister of Ackerman McQueen’s CEO.
The Board of Directors need to bear in mind that the US Trustee, despite wild accusations by Brewer and others with sweetheart deals, is independent and does not have an axe to grind. The US Trustee is neither anti-NRA nor pro-NRA but rather is pro-process and keeping it equitable for all involved.
So when doing their fiduciary duties of care, loyalty, and obedience, the Board of Directors should be asking themselves these questions.
Have I done my duty of care if all I’ve done is accept the assertions of Wayne LaPierre, William Brewer, and the Special Litigation Committee?
Am I performing my duty of loyalty to the members, the donors, the Second Amendment, and to the core values of the NRA?
Have I as a board member really overseen the actions of the CEO in the name of the organization or did I just go along?
Did I confuse my duty of obedience to the NRA with obedience and loyalty to certain individuals?
Will I be protected by the “business judgment rule” if I merely accepted the word of LaPierre and Brewer without going any further?
Finally, am I liable for a breach of fiduciary duties and what happens if I am?