NRA hires former video game executive as lobbying arm's top lawyer

Wade Callender will replace David Lehman

By Sara Murray and Michael Warren, CNN
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(CNN) - National Rifle Association Chief Executive Wayne LaPierre -- who once pinned the blame for mass shootings on violent video games -- turned to that same industry for the NRA's latest hire.

The NRA has tapped Wade Callender, the former general counsel for Gearbox Software LLC, to replace David Lehman, who had served as deputy executive director and general counsel for the NRA's lobbying arm, two sources told CNN.

Lehman recently resigned from the organization amid a series of staff shakeups that have roiled the NRA.

The former Gearbox employee previously worked as a trial attorney in Maryland and served as a judge advocate with the Navy, according to his LinkedIn page. His registration with the Texas Bar lists his specialties as intellectual property and entertainment law.

Callender's hire, which was announced internally earlier this week, has already sparked concern within the organization.

A source said staffers are perplexed about why the NRA would hire someone with no apparent political experience from an industry LaPierre has demonized, particularly at a time when the issue of gun control is back in the news following a spate of mass shootings.

An NRA official confirmed Callender's hiring but declined to comment further.

"I think that the NRA went out and found the best of the best," said Blake Beckham, an attorney for Callender. "He's a rock-solid individual, a man of high morals, strong Christian values, conservative politically, ex-military. He's exactly what the NRA needs."

After a gunman shot and killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, LaPierre held a news conference in which he called for armed officers in schools and blamed violent music videos and video games for inspiring shooters.

"There exists in this country, sadly, a callous, corrupt and corrupting shadow industry that sells and stows violence against its own people through vicious, violent video games with names like 'Bulletstorm,' 'Grand Theft Auto,' 'Mortal Kombat' and 'Splatterhouse,' " LaPierre said in the news conference.

During Callender's tenure as general counsel for Gearbox, from 2010 to 2018, the company released shooting games like "Battleborn," "Borderlands 2" and "Duke Nukem Forever."

In 2017, Gearbox released a remastered version of one of the games LaPierre had called out by name: "Bulletstorm: Full Clip Edition."

The NRA, meanwhile, has been under scrutiny from lawmakers and attorneys general in New York and DC. At issue is how the gun rights group has been spending its money and whether it has abused its nonprofit status.

LaPierre has faced blowback for using an NRA vendor to purchase hundreds of thousands of dollars in clothing from a Beverly Hills boutique and to foot the bill for travel to destinations including Italy, Hungary and the Bahamas. The NRA said the expenditures were all for business purposes.

The NRA also considered buying LaPierre a roughly $6 million mansion, along with a country club membership, drawing another wave of negative headlines.

At a time when the NRA is under serious legal and financial pressure, Callender brings along his own messy legal baggage.

He departed Gearbox on sour terms. Ever since, he and Gearbox CEO Randall Pitchford II (who also happened to be Callender's decades-long best friend) have been trading jaw-dropping accusations in lawsuits.

The lawsuit against Callender accuses him of using Gearbox as his personal piggy bank and lending agency.

"While Callender regularly used the Gearbox credit card for anticipated business expenses such as airfare and meals related to business travel, he also abused the privilege of credit card access by charging unapproved, wholly personal expenses, including family vacations, gun club memberships and firearms accessories, and trying to get six-pack abs," Gearbox attorneys alleged in their lawsuit.

Callender's attorney said the claims against his client are untrue.

"They are manufactured, trumped-up claims that are just all a show of vindictiveness," Beckham said.

According to the court filings, "... Callender incurred thousands of dollars' worth of charges from Disneyland, Frisco Gun Club, Gun Gear To Go, and sixpackshortcuts.com, just to name a few."

Callender's former boss also accused him of taking a $300,000 loan from Gearbox to purchase a more than $900,000 Texas home and then failing to repay it, according to court filings.

Gearbox claimed it had fronted Callender more than $50,000 for legal fees for a separate lawsuit he's engaged in against his father in Maryland. "Callender took advantage of Gearbox's trust for his own personal gain," his former employer claimed in court papers.

Just before departing the company, Callender allegedly went to Gearbox's chief financial officer with an urgent request. He needed an increase on his American Express line of credit to pay $17,000 in legal fees surrounding the familial dispute in Maryland. According to court filings, Callender said he would reimburse the company for the payment.

"Callender's urgent press for payment of last-minute expense, however, occurred only hours before he emptied his office and resigned as General Counsel, and the $17,000 was never repaid," his former employer alleged in a court filing.

Callender, meanwhile, has shot back in his own court filings. He has accused the Gearbox CEO of secretly taking a $12 million bonus, as well as other transgressions.

Callender's attorney said that as soon as his client started voicing concerns about financial and other improprieties at Gearbox, the CEO turned on him.

Gearbox disputes that account.

"These false claims are nothing more than an attempt by a disgruntled former employee to distract from the theft and other misconduct that are the subject of protracted litigation against him by Gearbox," a spokesperson for Gearbox said in a written statement. "We look forward to the outcome of the litigation, through which we are confident our justice system will hold Mr. Callender accountable both for his misdeeds and for making allegations against Gearbox and its CEO that he knows to be untrue."

The suit is scheduled to go to trial in Texas in January.

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