Mary McFate was a prominent gun control activist. Mary Lou Sapone was a freelance spy with an NRA connection. They are the same person. A Mother Jones investigation.
This is the story of two Marys. Both are in their early 60s, heavyset, with curly reddish hair. But for years they have worked on opposite ends of the same issues. Mary McFate is an advocate of environmental causes and a prominent activist within the gun control movement. For more than a decade, she volunteered for various gun violence prevention organizations, serving on the boards of anti-gun outfits, helping state groups coordinate their activities, lobbying in Washington for gun control legislation, and regularly attending strategy and organizing meetings.
Mary Lou Sapone, by contrast, is a self-described “research consultant,” who for decades has covertly infiltrated citizens groups for private security firms hired by corporations that are targeted by activist campaigns. For some time, Sapone also worked for the National Rifle Association.
But these two Marys share a lot in common—a Mother Jones investigation has found that McFate and Sapone are, in fact, the same person. And this discovery has caused the leaders of gun violence prevention organizations to conclude that for years they have been penetrated—at the highest levels—by the NRA or other pro-gun parties. “It raises the question,” says Paul Helmke, the president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, “of what did she find out and what did they want her to find out.”
Using her maiden name, McFate, Sapone began posing as a gun control activist in the mid-1990s. Bryan Miller, the executive director of Ceasefire New Jersey, a grassroots gun control group, recalls first meeting her in the summer of 1998. The NRA was holding its annual convention in downtown Philadelphia, and the event drew the usual bevy of protesters. Among them was a middle-aged woman then living in Pennsylvania who made a point of introducing herself to Miller. In the following years, Miller would remember this encounter well, as he watched McFate rise from a street protester to a figure known nationally within his movement. She became a leader of Pennsylvanians Against Handgun Violence and later a board member of Ceasefire Pennsylvania. According to staffers at several gun violence prevention groups, she worked on the Million Mom March in 2000, when hundreds of thousands of people demonstrated in Washington, DC, to demand stricter gun laws. She joined the board of Freedom States Alliance, a network of nine state-based gun control organizations. At States United to Prevent Gun Violence, a nationwide coalition of anti-gun groups, she was the director of federal legislation, an unpaid position that placed her in charge of the outfit’s lobbying efforts in Washington. In that role, she collaborated with national organizations including the Brady Campaign and the Violence Policy Center.
In 2005, McFate ran for a board position at the Brady Campaign, which would have placed her in the inner sanctum of the nation’s most prominent gun control group. On her ballot statement, she described herself as a “community activist and motivational speaker,” “a former presidential scholar,” and a recipient of the “Public Service Council’s Community Champion Award in 1999.” And she pitched her credentials for the position: “I believe my volunteerism over 30 years to nonprofit organizations with disparate program goals has given me practical insights on what strategies are most effective…My experience with broad coalitions working together for societal change has proven to me that our organization is on the right track to make our neighborhoods safer and to give our children their full life potential.”
McFate lost the election, but she did not give up. Several months ago, she told Paul Helmke that she was interested in an appointed board position for the Brady Campaign. (Helmke recalls that he was concerned about placing her on his board because she was already deeply connected to other groups. “I didn’t push the idea,” he says.) In 2007, she attended a summit convened by the International Association of Chiefs of Police that aimed to develop a strategy for reducing gun violence. As an advocate working with both state and national groups, she was privy to the gun control movement’s community’s internal deliberations and in a position to know what was happening throughout the movement. “She’s been active in everything and involved in every single major gun violence prevention organization,” says Barbara Hohlt, executive director of States United to Prevent Gun Violence.
Despite her supposed commitment to the cause, her friends and colleagues in the gun control community considered McFate something of a curiosity. Among other things, she had a tendency to drop in and out of contact, explaining away her absences by saying she had been vacationing aboard luxury cruise liners. When the Brady Campaign’s communications director, Paul Hamm, occasionally asked her to talk to the media about gun issues, she adamantly refused. “I would say, ‘Please, Mary.’ She would say, ‘No, no, no, I don’t want to.'”
Looking back, gun control advocates who worked with McFate can now see what might have been faint warning signs. A few weeks ago, Hohlt says, she had what she considered an odd encounter with McFate when the pair was making preparations to take part in a conference call with other gun control advocates. Rather than face a long-distance charge for the call, McFate, who lives in Florida but was in New York City at the time, insisted on dropping by the offices of New Yorkers Against Gun Violence to participate in the discussion. Given that McFate appeared to be well off financially—she was always offering to travel to meetings and conferences, including NRA conferences, with no concern for cost—Hohlt couldn’t understand why she was demanding to come to this office for the call just to save a few bucks. Nor could she fathom why McFate often pushed to share a hotel room with other gun control advocates at conferences and events when she seemed able to afford accommodations of her own. Hohlt also thought it unusual that McFate served on the boards of several organizations simultaneously, since there was, as Hohlt puts it, “a certain amount of competition between all the groups.” But she never doubted McFate’s devotion to gun control.
Though McFate’s colleagues viewed her as a friend, some found it strange that they knew virtually nothing about her life outside the movement. She never explained the source of her personal wealth. And Toby Hoover, the executive director of the Ohio Coalition Against Gun Violence and an activist who worked with McFate since the mid-1990s, says, “She never talked about what she had done prior to this work. I didn’t even know if she had a husband or kids.” Ceasefire New Jersey’s Bryan Miller adds, “She doesn’t talk about her family. I know nothing about her personal life other than that she lives in Sarasota, Florida. For my closest friends in this movement, who also know Mary, it was a matter of low-level discussion that we didn’t know anything about her.”
There was good reason for that.
Outside the gun control world, Mary Lou Sapone was, as Mother Jones has previously reported, a for-hire operative who spied on citizens’ groups for corporate clients. Property and phone records indicate that the two names belong to the same person. Last week, a reporter for Mother Jones called the Sarasota phone number that McFate had given her gun control allies and asked the woman who answered if she was Mary Lou Sapone. “Yes,” she responded. But Sapone then refused to answer any questions about Mary McFate or her work for gun control. She quickly hung up—and did not respond to subsequent calls and emails.
During Sapone’s ascent through the ranks of the gun control movement, she worked for the NRA, according to a business associate. In a 2003 deposition, Tim Ward, who had been president of the Maryland-based security firm Beckett Brown International, said that the NRA had been “a client” of Sapone’s. (As a subcontractor for BBI, Sapone had planted an operative within an environmental group in Lake Charles, Louisiana.) According to Ward, at his request Sapone had introduced BBI to the NRA in early 1999. And that introduction quickly paid off. Billing records obtained by Mother Jones indicate that between May 1999 and April 2000, the NRA paid BBI nearly $80,000 for various services.
In another 2003 deposition, Jay Bly, a former Secret Service officer who worked for BBI, was asked what type of work the security firm had done for the NRA, and he responded, “Those are very sensitive issues, and I’m just not comfortable going into it. I’m really not.” Later in the deposition, Bly said, “I did a number of different things for the NRA in the area of investigation, the area of personal protection, in the area of event security, in the area of intelligence gathering, okay?”
Ward, during his own deposition, explained what a typical BBI intelligence-gathering operation would entail: “We used informants that we would send to public rallies that these people were holding, public demonstrations. These informants developed relationships where they could pick up a phone up and call in to find out where the next event was, where it was going to be held…They are usually very eager to have somebody come and tote banners and scream and shout.” According to Bly’s testimony, he and Ward continued their intelligence-gathering operations for the NRA after BBI acrimoniously disbanded around 2001 and Ward opened his own security firm, Chesapeake Strategies. (These depositions were taken during a lawsuit filed against former BBI officials by John Dodd, the firm’s primary investor.)
In his deposition, Ward identified Sapone’s contact at the NRA as Patrick O’Malley. From the late 1990s until 2002, O’Malley was the deputy executive director of the Institute for Legislative Action, the NRA’s political arm. And according to billing records from BBI (which in 2000 changed its name to S2I Corporation), O’Malley was BBI’s liaison at the NRA. Recent emails indicate that in 2007 and 2008 Sapone was working with O’Malley, who lobbied for the NRA after leaving the ILA and went on to work for a government relations firm retained by his former employer. In recent years, O’Malley has served as the executive director of the Ballot Issues Coalition, an organization composed of hunting-rights groups, including the NRA.
O’Malley did not respond to numerous messages left at his office and home. Asked about Sapone, James Jay Baker, who was executive director of the NRA’s ILA when O’Malley was its deputy executive director, says, “I don’t have anything to say about any vendors at the NRA.” Baker notes, “We got information from whatever sources we can,” but he maintains that he was not aware of any infiltration of the gun control movement. Baker, now managing director of Ogilvy Government Relations, a high-powered lobbying shop, is currently registered as a lobbyist for the NRA. (After leaving the NRA in 2002, both O’Malley and Baker joined the Federalist Group, a lobbying firm that was acquired by Ogilvy in 2005.) Contacted repeatedly, the NRA declined to comment on its past or present relationship with Sapone, BBI, or Chesapeake Strategies.
Informed of McFate’s true identity, her friends and associates in the gun control community expressed shock and anger. “That astounds me,” says Barbara Hohlt. Of McFate’s ability to maintain her cover, she adds, “She was very, very good. Everybody knew her for years and trusted her.” Brian Malte, director of state legislation at the Brady Campaign, says, “Oh my…Of all the people.” Kristen Rand, legislative director of the Violence Policy Center, remarks, “This is totally bizarre.” And she adds, “I would find it hardest to believe this about her. She comes across as kind of dense—or she’s putting on a good act.”
McFate’s (now former) colleagues note that she was well-positioned for many years to provide the NRA—or any other gun rights groups—the plans, secrets, and inside gossip of practically the entire gun violence prevention movement. “She had access to all the legislative strategy for every major issue for years,” says Rand. Another gun control advocate who worked with McFate and asked not to be identified recalls, “She was one of those rare people. As a volunteer, she wanted to know more and more about what people were working on.” With intelligence gathered by McFate, Ceasefire New Jersey’s Miller says, the gun lobby could “learn a lot: what the grassroots of the gun violence prevention movement intended; where our priorities are shifting; which legislation we would be promoting or fighting against and what sort of effort we would be putting into that; who our targeted legislators would be; what states and districts we deemed important enough to put an effort into; our messaging, what our messaging would be before we put it out there.”
Hohlt recalled several recent episodes in which McFate maneuvered to place herself in the middle of issues important to the NRA and others in the gun lobby. One occurred this spring, when the London-based International Action Network on Small Arms was trying to persuade American gun control groups to attend a July meeting at the United Nations on small-arms control. (A 2001 UN conference ended up establishing a program weaker than gun control advocates had desired, thanks to the intervention of the Bush administration, which had been lobbied by the NRA.) States United to Prevent Gun Violence had never before been involved with international gun control issues. And to participate in the UN meeting, it had to apply for credentials. Hohlt says McFate pushed her to file for them. Hohlt did so, and McFate ended up being able to learn what the anti-gun forces were planning for the UN session—including the delegates they intended to lobby, and the arguments they would highlight.
McFate also took a keen interest in a gun matter currently under consideration by the Department of the Interior, Hohlt says. At the urging of the gun lobby, the agency has been mulling whether to change its regulations to allow people to carry loaded and concealed guns into national parks under certain circumstances. (At the moment, a gun carried into a national park must be unloaded and kept apart from ammunition.) The National Parks Conservation Association and current and former National Park Service officials have been fighting the proposed rule change. “When Mary heard about this,” Hohlt recalls, “she immediately asked to be on the email list [of the opponents] and she also got on the phone calls. So she now knows the strategy of the people trying to fight this.” Similarly, when Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a group organized by New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, mounted a campaign against the NRA-backed Tiahrt amendment—legislation advanced by Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-Kan.) and first passed by Congress in 2003 that prevents the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives from sharing gun-tracing data—McFate, according to Hohlt, made certain to participate in conference calls during which strategy for beating back the bill was discussed. “Whenever an issue comes up, she manages to get on the email list,” Hohlt says.
The McFate operation, says Miller, “would confirm for me the way that the gun lobby works, which is no rules, no question of fairness or honesty. Anything that they can do they will do to protect the profits of the gun industry.” He notes that his organization has experienced low-level attempts at penetration in the past—a pro-gun advocate once posed as a would-be volunteer to get on his group’s mailing list—but nothing on this scale.
Shocked to learn that McFate was a spy, gun control advocates have pondered the obvious questions: How did she manage to fool everyone for so long? How much money did she earn for being a mole? To whom in the gun lobby did she report? The NRA? The firearms manufacturing industry? Did her covert effort extend beyond mere intelligence gathering? Did she manage to shape the decisions and actions of anti-gun groups to the gun lobby’s liking? And was she the only one?
While Sapone was a spy with a big secret, as McFate she led a relatively high-profile life. In Sarasota, Florida, McFate heads the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. She has served as a substitute teacher at a local military academy, and once joined a coalition of residents who fought to save a 112-acre forest from development. Several years ago, McFate cofounded an organization called Lead Our Leaders, which boasted the “audacious mission” of changing “the way politics is done in America” by creating “a mechanism for the American electorate to effectively communicate their policy instructions to our elected leaders.” A 2005 profile of her in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune began, “Mary McFate wants to save the world.” (She told the paper, “I’m an optimist by nature.”) During a short-lived attempt at blogging, she wrote a small number of postings using the handle “SolutionGal” and touted her Lead Our Leaders effort. (She stopped blogging in February 2006, and the website of Lead Our Leaders is no longer active.)
Sapone’s earliest known private intelligence operation occurred in the mid-1980s, when she served as an operative for Perceptions International, a Connecticut-based security firm. Working for Perceptions, which has since been shuttered, she infiltrated the animal rights community for US Surgical Corporation, a target of activists who objected to its testing on dogs. According to a 1989 article in New England Business, Sapone appeared on the animal rights scene in 1986 and quickly became “involved in at least a half dozen animal rights groups.” She “made a point of getting to know all of the key people in the movement,” and “traveled around the country to most protests, meetings and conferences.” At meetings, activists would later say, Sapone advocated taking illegal or violent action to advance the movement. She befriended a 33-year-old activist named Fran Trutt, who in November 1988 would be arrested for planting a remote-controlled pipe bomb near the parking space of US Surgical chairman Leon Hirsch. According to Trutt, on her way to carry out the bombing she lost her nerve and placed a call to Sapone, who convinced her to follow through with the plan—a fact that prompted activists to accuse Sapone of acting as an agent provocateur. (Another Perceptions International operative, Marcus Mead, drove Trutt to US Surgical on the day of the attempted bombing.)
In the 1990s—while working within the gun control community as McFate—Sapone formed her own intelligence-gathering business. And she enlisted family members for its operations. “In our business, it’s my daughter-in-law, Montgomery Sapone [who] does all the analytic reports, forecasting, and white papers,” Sapone wrote to a client in an August 1999 email obtained by Mother Jones. “She produces a very professional product.” Sapone continued, “We are warning our clients that activist groups are moving towards ballot initiatives…And it’s easy for groups like Greenpeace to emotionally shape a looming crisis in a 10 second TV spot 2 days before a referenda election. My daughter Shelley specializes in that aspect of our business. We are doing a lot of work now to help clients in the 2000 election.”
A resume that Montgomery Sapone used around 1999 describes her role within Mary Lou’s business: “Collect and analyze intelligence on European activities of major international environmental organization for a company specializing in domestic and international opposition research, special investigations, issues management and threat assessment. Write weekly intelligence update on European animal rights and eco-terrorist activity. Assist in confidential litigation support research.” Sapone’s son Sean, a Brown- and Harvard-educated paratrooper who served with the 82nd Airborne Division, was managing director of this firm, which at one point was called Strategic Solutions Group LLC and maintained an office in Washington, DC. According to a Strategic Solutions Group invoice sent to BBI in November 2000, Montgomery Sapone—a Harvard law school grad and Yale-trained anthropologist—once billed the security firm $400 for four hours of her time, which included a “visit to target’s office.”
Sapone made her gun control work a family affair as well. Around 2003, Montgomery volunteered at the Brady Campaign, according to Becca Knox, the group’s research director. Occasionally, Montgomery would also sit in for her mother-in-law at Washington strategy meetings attended by officials of the gun control movement, according to the Violence Policy Center’s Kristen Rand. And Sean Sapone once offered to help Rand’s group on a campaign against the civilian use of .50 caliber rifles, Rand recalls. But after attending one meeting, Sean Sapone never followed through.
These days, Sean and Montgomery Sapone are better known as Sean and Montgomery McFate, a successful Washington couple whose current bios make no mention of any past intelligence-gathering or opposition-research work. Sean is currently the program director of the national security initiative at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington think tank boasting an advisory board composed of four former Senate majority leaders: Howard Baker, Bob Dole, George Mitchell, and Tom Daschle. An expert on military affairs, he previously worked for Amnesty International and for military contractor DynCorp. According to an online biography, he helped to organize “the first major legal arms shipment to Liberia in 15 years.” Montgomery has made a name for herself as one of the primary architects of the US military’s human terrain program, which teams social scientists with military units in Iraq and Afghanistan to help soldiers better understand the local culture. (The controversial program has been sharply criticized by the American Anthropological Association, which fears it may cross an ethical line, and has been described by detractors as “mercenary anthropology.”) Now a top Pentagon adviser, Montgomery also contributed to the Army’s Counterinsurgency Field Manual drafted under the guidance of General David Petraeus.
Montgomery McFate did not respond to an email request for comment. Nor did Mary Lou Sapone’s daughter, Shelley McGonnigal. During a brief phone call, Sean McFate told Mother Jones, “I’m familiar with what you are doing. But I don’t want to talk to the media.” Asked to explain his mother’s double life as Mary McFate and Mary Lou Sapone, he said, “You have to talk to Mary Lou.” Then he hung up.