/New York attorney general files lawsuit to shut down the NRA

New York attorney general files lawsuit to shut down the NRA

ALBANY – New York state’s top legal officer is trying to force the National Rifle Association to shut down, accusing leaders of the powerful gun lobby of wasting millions of dollars on tropical trips, lavish meals and private jets.

Attorney General Letitia James filed a lawsuit Thursday in state court against the NRA, longtime CEO Wayne LaPierre and three other organizational leaders, laying out a wide array of alleged wrongdoing she says is enough to force the nonprofit to shut down.

The NRA has been chartered in New York since the late 19th century, which grants James significant leverage over the association as she seeks to shut it down for violating state laws governing charities and nonprofits.

All told, James accused the NRA leaders of wasteful, unchecked spending that helped lead the organization to turn a $27.8 million surplus in 2015 to a $36.3 million net deficit in 2018.

“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. “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.”

Letitia James delivers a victory speech after winning the primary election for attorney general Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018, in New York. (AP Photo/Kevin Hagen).

The NRA has built up a reputation as one of the nation’s fiercest gun rights advocates since its incorporation in 1871, becoming a major force in national politics and government.

The controversial organization, which boasts of more than five million members, has faced financial and leadership turmoil in recent years, headlined by a public power struggle between LaPierre and NRA President Oliver North that ended with North’s ouster last year.

Private trips to the Bahamas

James’ lawsuit accuses the NRA and its leaders of a lawbreaking and lavish spending that has jeopardized the longstanding organization’s financial standing.

Among the allegations laid out in the suit:

  • LaPierre, NRA’s chief executive and executive vice president since 1991, and his family are accused of traveling to the Bahamas on a private charter at least eight times over three years, costing the NRA $500,000. On some of those trips, an NRA vendor allowed him to use a 107-foot yacht.
  • LaPierre is also accused of spending more than $3.6 million in NRA funds on black car services and travel consultants in just the last two years, as well as teeing up a post-employment contract worth more than $17 million.
  • Former treasurer and CFO Wilson “Woody” Phillips is alleged to have set up a $1.8 million consulting deal for himself just before his retirement, as well as overseeing an arrangement that saw Ackerman McQueen, an advertising and PR firm, pay for NRA leaders’ entertainment and travel costs before billing the organization. That arrangement is subject of a separate legal dispute.

Also named in the lawsuit are former NRA Chief of Staff Joshua Powell and current Corporate Secretary and General Counsel John Frazer.

National Rifle Association Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre speaks at the NRA Annual Meeting of Members in Indianapolis on April 27, 2019.

James first launched an investigation into the NRA last year after new outlets, including The New Yorker and Trace, published investigations into the organization’s leadership and precarious financial structure. 

Her suit claims the organizations institutional controls and audit capabilities should have caught much of the financial mismanagement that has put the organization in peril.

James is seeking to dissolve the group and have the four NRA leaders named in the suit to pay full restitution and penalties, including their salaries earned while employees of the association. She also is seeking a court order barring the leaders from serving on any New York-based charitable boards ever again.

There is precedent for the New York Attorney General’s Office to force the dissolution of a high-profile charitable group.

In June 2018, then-Attorney General Barbara Underwood filed suit against President Donald Trump and the Donald J. Trump Foundation, accusing the president and his children of breaking a number of New York oversight laws and using the charity to boost his presidential campaign.

Six months later, Underwood and the Trump Foundation agreed to a settlement that wiped out the charity’s certificate of incorporation and ended its existence, with its remaining $1.8 million in assets distributed to other charities.

More:NRA power struggle: President Oliver North tells Indy convention he won’t serve 2nd term

More:NRA says it faces financial crisis, claims it might be ‘unable to exist’ in future: lawsuit

Jon Campbell is a New York state government reporter for the USA TODAY Network. He can be reached at JCAMPBELL1@Gannett.com or on Twitter at @JonCampbellGAN.

Support local journalism

We cover the stories from the New York State Capitol and across New York that matter most to you and your family. Please consider supporting our efforts with a subscription to the New York publication nearest you. Check out the latest offer.