New York’s attorney general has sued to dissolve the National Rifle Association (NRA), alleging that senior leaders used the powerful gun lobby group as their “personal piggy bank” and illegally diverted millions of dollars from its charitable work.
Letitia James alleged that NRA leaders diverted funds to pay for family trips to the Bahamas and private jets, which contributed to a $64m reduction in the balance sheet in three years, turning a surplus into a deficit. She called for the organization’s leader, Wayne LaPierre, to be removed from his post.
“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 at a press conference on Thursday.
The NRA “has operated as a breeding ground for greed, abuse and brazen illegality,” she said, adding: “No one is above the law.”
LaPierre and three other current and former senior members of the organization are named in the 164-page civil lawsuit, along with the organization as a whole. James asked New York’s court to force the executives to repay NRA members based on the findings in her investigation.
The NRA, which has about 5 million members, has been registered as a not-for-profit in New York since 1871. Under state law, charitable organizations are required to file financial reports to the state and to use their assets to serve the interests of their membership.
The NRA president, Carolyn Meadows, said the lawsuit was a “baseless, premeditated attack” on the organization. She cast it as a politicized attack by a Democratic state attorney general on conservatives and the constitution’s second amendment, which enshrines the right to bear arms.
“You could have set your watch by it: the investigation was going to reach its crescendo as we move into the 2020 election cycle,” Meadows said. “It’s a transparent attempt to score political points and attack the leading voice in opposition to the leftist agenda.”
Meadows also said the NRA had filed a counter-lawsuit against the attorney general, signaling what could become a long, drawn-out legal fight.
LaPierre said the lawsuit was “an affront to democracy and freedom”. “This is an unconstitutional, premeditated attack aiming to dismantle and destroy the NRA – the fiercest defender of America’s freedom at the ballot box for decades,” LaPierre said. “The NRA is well governed, financially solvent, and committed to good governance. We’re ready for the fight.”
Donald Trump sought to make the lawsuit an election issue, using it to criticize Democratic challenger Joe Biden.
“Just like Radical Left New York is trying to destroy the NRA, if Biden becomes President your GREAT SECOND AMENDMENT doesn’t have a chance,” Trump tweeted. “Your guns will be taken away, immediately and without notice. No police, no guns!”
He also called on the NRA to move its headquarters to Texas and lead a “very good and beautiful life”.
Biden has not called for confiscating guns. He has said he would seek to ban assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines and expand background checks.
In the lawsuit, prosecutors allege LaPierre and has family visited the Bahamas by private airplane on at least eight occasions at a cost of more than $500,000 to the NRA. On those trips, they were allegedly gifted the use of a 107ft yacht, named Illusions, owned by an NRA vendor.
LaPierre testified that he considered the use of the yacht as “a safe place to do [business], and didn’t consider it a gift”.
“Efforts to question or challenge LaPierre’s leadership were quashed or ignored,” the complaint alleges.
The three other named defendants are the NRA’s former treasurer and chief financial officer, Wilson “Woody” Phillips; the former chief of staff and executive director of general operations, Joshua Powell; and corporate secretary and general counsel, John Frazer. James said the executives “looted” the NRA’s assets for their own benefit.
Phillips served as the NRA’s treasurer from 1992 to 2018. Just before his retirement, the NRA agreed to pay him $30,000 per month in consulting fees for five years, with no evidence this was approved by the group’s audit committee, the complaint says.
Powell was hired in 2016 but was later terminated for “misappropriating funds”.
Around June 2018, the NRA settled a potential sexual discrimination claim about Powell’s conduct, for $89,000, according to the suit.
Frazer first worked at the NRA in 1993, then left and returned to the NRA as general counsel in January 2017. The complaintalleges there was no indication he had “relevant legal experience” for the position.
Central to the complaint is the NRA’s leader for nearly 30 years, LaPierre.
LaPierre was re-elected by the NRA’s board in 2019, despite allegations of corruption in the organization. Insiders had said it was beset by warring factions and excessive spending by leadership.
The complaint alleges NRA leadership worked to conceal the nature and scope of whistleblower complaints. LaPierre is accused of taking actions to “intimidate, punish, and expel anyone at a senior level who raised concerns about his conduct”.
From May 2015 to April 2019, the NRA incurred over $1m in private flight expenses when LaPierre was not a passenger, according to the complaint, which said these expenses were not authorized to by the NRA’s board.
From 2013 to 2017, the NRA reimbursed LaPierre more than $65,000 for Christmas gifts from upmarket department stores including Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf Goodman.
James, the attorney general, has previously called the NRA a “terrorist organization” and opened an investigation into the group shortly after being elected to her post in November 2018.
In calling for the organization to be dissolved, prosecutors cited previous investigations by past New York attorney generals which forced two groups to shutter: Trump’s charitable foundation and a Brooklyn group which provided help to people with developmental disabilities.
In May 2019, Donald Trump tweeted that James and New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, were “illegally using the state’s legal apparatus to take down and destroy this very important organization”.
Also on Thursday, Washington DC’s attorney general, Karl Racine, also announced a lawsuit against the NRA Foundation, accusing the group’s charitable branch of misuse of funds, accusing it of diverting money that donors gave “to fund safety, education and marksmanship training”.