National Rifle Association Executive Vice President and CEO Wayne LaPierre speaks at Conservative Political Action Conference. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)
National Rifle Association Executive Vice President and CEO Wayne LaPierre speaks at Conservative Political Action Conference. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

New York AG moves to dissolve the organization, citing Trump Foundation case as precedent.

New York State Attorney General Letitia James on Thursday filed a lawsuit against the National Rifle Association, seeking to dissolve the anti-gun safety lobbying group over a years-long pattern of fraud, financial crimes, and corruption.

The lawsuit alleges that top NRA executives, including chief executive Wayne LaPierre, engaged in 18 criminal offenses, including fraudulently using charitable funds for their own personal gain and providing millions of dollars in contracts to friends, family members, ex-employees, and ex-board members. 

“It’s clear that the NRA has been failing to carry out its stated mission for many, many years and instead has operated as a breeding ground for greed, abuse, and brazen illegality,” James said in a press conference on Thursday. “No one is above the law, not even the NRA, one of the most powerful organizations in this country.”

The investigation is just the latest example of groups allied with President Donald Trump running afoul of the law. The New York Attorney General’s office specifically named their investigation into President Trump’s charitable foundation as precedent to dissolve the NRA. That case forced his organization to shut down in 2018 amid allegations that Trump used the foundation for his own personal and political gain, including to help his 2016 presidential campaign by funding giveaways at Iowa rallies.

James mentioned that case in explaining why she was filing a suit to dissolve the NRA. “The corruption was so broad and because they have basically destroyed all the assets of the NRA,” she said.  “We needed to dissolve this organization just as we did the Trump foundation.”

And on Wednesday, the New York Times reported that the president’s longtime lender, Deutsche Bank, turned over Trump’s financial records after the Manhattan District Attorney’s office issued a subpoena last year as part of their investigation into Trump’s business practices. The request signaled that their investigation into Trump has expanded into potential business and insurance fraud. 

James said the NRA investigation, which began in February 2019, found the group’s financial misconduct led to a loss of more than $64 million over a three-year period for the non-profit organization. The lawsuit asks the court to order that LaPierre and other executives make “full restitution” for the funds they misused, pay financial penalties, and be barred from ever again serving on a charitable board in the state of New York.

The lawsuit could have enormous political consequences, given the NRA’s history of political influence and financial support of right-wing candidates. The organization spent more than $50 million boosting now-President Donald Trump and Senate Republicans during the 2016 election, according to an audit obtained by the Center for Responsive Politics. 

James has jurisdiction over the NRA because it is chartered as a nonprofit in New York, and her lawsuit sets up what is sure to be a contentious legal dispute that could take years to be decided. In a statement released shortly after James’ press conference, the NRA blasted the lawsuit as a “baseless, premeditated attack” and vowed to fight the lawsuit.

According to James, LaPierre was the ringleader of the scheme, engaging in rampant misuse of funds. “Mr. LaPierre exploited the organization for his and his family’s financial benefits and the benefit for a close circle of NRA staff, board members, and vendors,” she said. 

LaPierre, who has led the NRA for 39 years, is accused of spending more than $500,000 in the NRA’s funds to pay for at least eight family trips to the Bahamas over a three-year period. LaPierre also billed a vendor for  “multiple luxury hunting safaris in Africa” and spent more than $3.6 million on travel agent services in just the past two years, according to the lawsuit.

The filing also names NRA general counsel John Frazier, former chief financial officer Woody Phillips, and former chief of staff Joshua Powell, for allegedly misusing “millions upon millions of dollars from the NRA for personal use, including for lavish trips for themselves and their families, private jets, expensive meals, and other private travel.”

The lawsuit represents a potentially fatal blow for the powerful gun rights group, which has more than 5 million members, but has already experienced financial struggles and inner turmoil in recent years. A secret recording of an NRA board meeting obtained by NPR in April showed LaPierre saying that the NRA’s previous legal troubles—which include congressional inquiries, state investigations, internal whistleblower complaint, and a contentious dispute with its former public relations firm—had cost the organization $100 million.

“The cost that we bore was probably about a hundred-million-dollar hit in lost revenue and real cost to this association in 2018 and 2019,” LaPierre said, according to a tape recorded by someone in the room. “I mean, that’s huge.”

The group has also been involved in a dispute with its long-time public relations firm, Ackerman McQueen, which James’ suit claims was intimately involved in the NRA’s fraud. The filing claims that the groups secretly agreed that LaPierre and his allies would pass through lavish personal expenses and other questionable spending to the Oklahoma-based firm, which would then bill the NRA for those costs, calling them “out-of-pocket expenses,” indicating they were related to the company’s work for the gun rights group. 

The goal of the scheme, James alleges, was to prevent the Board of the NRA or other members from knowing that the organization was paying for LaPierre’s personal spending. In 2017 and 2018 alone, Ackerman McQueen billed the NRA $70 million, with a large chunk of these expenses coming from LaPierre’s personal trips and expenses. The relationship between the companies has splintered over the past two years, with the NRA suing Ackerman McQueen over hiding details of its billing records.

Collectively, these issues have pushed the NRA out of the limelight in 2020 and tarnished the group’s reputation among some.

President Trump, however, defended the group on Thursday, calling the lawsuit a “terrible thing” and urging the NRA to move to Texas to avoid investigation. 

Trump, of course, is no stranger to lawsuits. 

Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance’s investigation initially appeared to be focused on Trump’s 2016 hush money payments made to women who claim they had affairs with him. But The Times’ report indicated that the investigation might be broader. In a court filing this week, prosecutors with the DA’s office cited “public reports of possibly extensive and protracted criminal conduct at the Trump Organization” and indicated they were also investigating possible crimes involving bank and insurance fraud.

That investigation remains ongoing, and like the NRA case, could take years to play out.