PHILADELPHIA – A gun-control activist who championed the cause for more than a decade and served on the boards of two anti-violence groups is suspected of working as a paid spy for the National Rifle Association, and now those organizations are expelling her and sweeping their offices for bugs.
The suggestion that Mary Lou McFate was a double agent is contained in a deposition filed as part of a contract dispute involving a security firm. The muckraking magazine Mother Jones, in a story last week, was the first to report on McFate's alleged dual identity.
The NRA refused to comment to the magazine and did not respond to calls Tuesday from The Associated Press. Nor did McFate.
The 62-year-old former flight attendant and sex counselor from Sarasota, Florida, is not new to the world of informants.
She infiltrated an animal-rights group in the late 1980s at the request of U.S. Surgical, and befriended an activist who was later convicted in a pipe bomb attack against the medical-supply business, U.S. Surgical acknowledged in news reports at the time. U.S. Surgical had come under fire for using dogs for research and training.
McFate resurfaced in Pennsylvania and has since spent years as an unpaid board member of CeaseFirePA and an organization called States United to Prevent Gun Violence. She also twice pushed unsuccessfully to join the board of the nation's largest gun-control group, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.
"It raises some real concerns with the tactics of the NRA. If they've got one person, maybe they have more. If they've done this dirty trick, what else have they done?" said Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign, which planned to search its offices for listening devices and computer spyware.
The Brady Campaign and other groups said they are also researching whether McFate's alleged spying constituted a crime.
"Under some circumstances, it could be trespass," said Laurie Levenson, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles and a former prosecutor. But "if they're open meetings, it may be underhanded and sneaky; it may not be illegal."
At States United, McFate served as federal legislation director, meeting with members of Congress and writing letters. Over the years, she also stuffed envelopes, attended rallies and took part in conference calls and strategy sessions.
In retrospect, Helmke said, he now realizes McFate stopped by the Washington office for meetings and conference calls that could have been handled by phone, and perhaps pushed too hard to join the board or lobby Congress.
But as for any secrets she might have been privy to, the gun-control groups said they have little to hide, since they put their message and information about their budgets on the Web.
The allegations against McFate stem from a lawsuit brought against officials with Beckett Brown International, a now-defunct security firm based in Maryland. A former beer distributor who bankrolled the firm accused them of defrauding him.
Boxes of documents filed in the dispute reveal that Sapone worked as a subcontractor for Beckett Brown and that the firm's clients included the NRA. And they show that McFate billed the firm for unspecified intelligence-gathering services, submitting among other things a request for a $4,500-a-month retainer in 1999.
The documents also reveal that McFate — that is her maiden name; her married name is Mary Lou Sapone — tried to get daughter-in-law Montgomery Sapone hired by Beckett Brown. Montgomery Sapone worked as an intern at Brady Campaign headquarters in 2003, the gun-control group said.
John Dodd III, the Maryland beer distributor who bankrolled Beckett Brown, told the AP that he did not condone the infiltration of activist groups.
Bryan Miller, executive director of Ceasefire NJ, said he feels betrayed by McFate. Miller's brother, an FBI agent, was shot to death in 1994.
"To have somebody that I consider a friend, have been with dozens of times, shared meals with, treated as a friend, to have her be an employee, a subcontracted spy for the NRA, is just mind-boggling. It's so venal," Miller said. "In the battle of ideas with the gun lobby, we're at a constant disadvantage because we're honest."
Timothy Ward, a former Beckett Brown principal who said in a sworn statement that McFate worked for the firm, declined comment Tuesday through a person who answered the phone at his new company, Chesapeake Strategies Group. The NRA now uses that firm for intelligence-gathering, another Chesapeake official said in a deposition.
The CeaseFirePA leadership plans a vote Friday on whether to expel McFate, a board member for seven years.
"I feel flattered that the NRA would feel that they would have to infiltrate Ceasefire of PA. Obviously, they're hearing our footsteps," said Phil Goldsmith, the group's president. "Frankly, I think it's a waste of their money. We don't deal in state secrets."