NEW YORK — Supporters of the National Rifle Association were cheated by the flagrant misuse of donations and fees by longtime leader Wayne LaPierre and others who cost the organization millions of dollars, a state attorney said in court Monday.
Special counsel Monica Connell said during opening statements in the state’s civil corruption trial against the NRA, LaPierre and other defendants that LaPierre, the nonprofit group’s longtime leader, stacked top positions with enablers and participants in his bad conduct.
Connell said the organization under LaPierre “did not operate according to law or even according to its own rules,” but on the basis of what LaPierre wanted. Connell said LaPierre had been referred to as “the king of the NRA.”
The New York State Attorney General’s case includes allegations that resources were pilfered from the NRA for personal use, such as buying expensive clothes and taking luxury trips, and that misconduct involved nepotism and corrupt practices.
“People take money out of their pockets, hard-earned money, and they donate it to charities that they believe in … They should be able to trust that the hard-earned money they donate is going to go to advance the mission of that charity,” Connell said.
The attorney general’s office concluded its opening statement Monday, and defense opening statements are expected to begin Tuesday. Attorneys for LaPierre and other defendants have denied wrongdoing.
LaPierre, general counsel John Frazer, former treasurer Wilson Phillips and former chief of staff Joshua Powell have been accused of practices that undermined the organization. On Friday, Powell settled with New York Attorney General Letitia James in an agreement that includes $100,000 in restitution and his testimony at the trial.
The NRA is based in Virginia but is incorporated in New York, dating to its post-Civil War founding in 1871. Its New York nonprofit status gives James’s Charities Bureau responsibility for regulatory oversight.
LaPierre announced Friday he was resigning as NRA chief executive, citing health reasons, after three decades in the post. His decision to step down effective at the end of January came as he faced the possibility of a court-ordered removal from the NRA.
LaPierre and other defendants could be ordered to pay millions back to the NRA, even though the nonprofit entity is also a defendant in the case. The organization is accused of enabling and permitting some of the alleged inappropriate conduct. The group’s net assets fell by $64 million from 2015 to 2018 because of its lack of accountability, according to a civil complaint.
“The NRA’s influence has been so powerful that the organization went unchecked for decades while top executives funneled millions into their own pockets,” James said in a statement when the lawsuit was filed in August 2020. “The NRA is fraught with fraud and abuse, which is why, today, we seek to dissolve the NRA, because no organization is above the law.”
The lawsuit alleges that LaPierre received lavish gifts from NRA vendors. It also says that for decades he secretly filtered questionable expenses through the NRA’s former public relations and advertising firm, Ackerman McQueen, to conceal the squandering of millions of the NRA’s money on luxury trips and other personal expenses that benefited LaPierre and his inner circle.
LaPierre, according to court filings, used more than half a million dollars in NRA funds to take his family to the Bahamas on a private jet at least eight times since 2015. He also allegedly accepted extravagant gifts from his friends, a couple that had contracts with the NRA. The attorney general said that in violation of clear conflict of interest standards, LaPierre and his family had free use of superyachts, international trips and stays at luxury resorts.
In doing so, he hid his relationship with the couple, film producer David McKenzie and his wife, and lied about it to some people in the NRA, the attorney general’s office said in court Monday.
William Brewer, an attorney for the NRA, said in a phone interview last week that measures to address the misuse of funds and other issues were implemented by NRA officials several years ago after problems came to light.
Brewer said that when the NRA’s audit committee, an internal review team, learned of violations with certain contractors, it ended relationships with those that were not in compliance. Employees were similarly scrutinized, he said.
The organization is now “committed to best practices and is committed to making sure the NRA complies with not just its own policies but good sense,” Brewer said.
The attorney general sued for the dissolution of the NRA, but New York Supreme Court Justice Joel Cohen in March 2022 ruled against such a move. The allegations did not show that the NRA benefited from the misuse or that it was incapable of serving its membership, he said.
The NRA’s hard-line stance on gun rights in the United States in an era of prolific mass shootings has polarized many Americans, including after the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre of 20 first-grade students and six adults. LaPierre’s public response calling for more guns to protect schools drew fury from families involved in the tragedy and others.
The NRA’s alleged financial misappropriations have alienated some of its membership and has led to the rise of smaller pro-Second Amendment associations.
Nick Suplina, vice president of law and policy for Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun control nonprofit, said in an interview the NRA’s efficacy in lobbying the government for gun rights has diminished somewhat due to its publicly-reported infighting and its legal troubles, but that its legacy remains strong.
“In some ways the most effective part of the NRA is that it has infused its extremist ideology into a kind of mainstream culture-war debate that will survive even the organization,” Suplina said.