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New York Attorney General Letitia James takes on the NRA over “Fraud and Abuse”

Letitia James

New York Attorney General Letitia James filed a lawsuit Thursday against the National Rifle Association and four individuals, including its chief executive, Wayne LaPierre, seeking to dissolve the gun rights advocacy group and accusing top executives of “years of illegal self-dealings” that funded a “lavish lifestyle.”

James said the not-for-profit organization undercut its charitable mission by engaging in illegal financial conduct, including diverting millions of dollars “for personal use by senior leadership, awarding contracts to the financial gain of close associates and family, and appearing to dole out lucrative no-show contracts to former employees in order to buy their silence and continued loyalty.”

“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,” she said.

Who is Implicated?

Also named in the complaint are Wilson “Woody” Phillips, a former treasurer and chief financial officer; Joshua Powell, a former chief of staff and the executive director of general operations; and John Frazer, the corporate secretary and general counsel. They are accused in the suit of failing to manage the NRA’s funds and abide by state and federal laws, contributing to the loss of more than $64 million in three years.

She added that the high-ranking executives had used the corporation as a “personal piggy bank”. Millions of dollars from NRA reserves were used on trips for them and their families. Also to pay for private jets and expensive meals. LaPierre is also accused of spending more than $500,000 on eight trips to the Bahamas over three years. He secured luxury black car services, paying for hair and makeup for his wife and obtaining a post-employment contract valued at $17 million.

“Given the breadth and depth of the corruption, the illegality and the brazen attempts to evade the law,” she said, it is necessary for the NRA to shut its doors for good to protect members and donors.

New York attorney general intensifies investigation into the NRA

LaPierre, Phillips, Powell and Frazer did not immediately respond to the lawsuit. The lawsuit was filed in state court in Manhattan following an 18-month investigation and seeks fines and remuneration. None of the men have been charged with a crime. James however said the suit would be forwarded to the IRS for potential violations of tax law.

“If we uncover any criminal activity, we will refer it to the Manhattan district attorney,” she added. “At this point in time we’re moving forward, again, with civil enforcement.”

Also on Thursday, District of Columbia Attorney General Karl Racine filed a lawsuit against the NRA and the NRA Foundation, which is incorporated in D.C., for “misusing charitable funds to support wasteful spending by the NRA and its executives.” The suit seeks the return of money used by the NRA to the NRA Foundation and to ensure the foundation is “operated independently and fulfills its charitable purposes.”

NRA President Carolyn Meadows called James’ complaint a “baseless, premeditated attack on our organization and the Second Amendment freedoms it fights to defend”. He added that “the organization would “confront it and prevail.”

“It’s a transparent attempt to score political points and attack the leading voice in opposition to the leftist agenda,” Meadows said in a statement. “This has been a power grab by a political opportunist — a desperate move that is part of a rank political vendetta. Our members won’t be intimidated or bullied in their defense of political and constitutional freedom.”

The NRA filed its own countersuit against James on Thursday. It claimed that the group’s First Amendment rights were violated ever since she suggested in 2018 it was akin to a “terrorist organization” and that she would open an investigation if she became attorney general.

“Importantly, James made these promises without a single shred of evidence, nor any sincere belief, that the NRA was violating the New York Not-For-Profit Corporation Law, or any other law,” the suit says.

It seeks a reprieve from James’ investigation and a judgment declaring that the NRA is “operating in substantial compliance with New York not-for-profit law.”

Trump: New York lawsuit against NRA is a ‘terrible thing’

President Donald Trump, whom the NRA endorsed in July for a second term, defended the organization after learning of James’ suit, saying a “very terrible thing that just happened.”

“I think the NRA should move to Texas and lead a very good and beautiful life,” told reporters outside the White House.

James confirmed in April 2019 that an investigation of the NRA was underway, part of a campaign promise to dig into the group’s not-for-profit status. James had issued subpoenas as part of the investigation, reportedly looking into its campaign finances, payments made to board members and tax compliance.

That same month, Oliver North, the retired U.S. Marine lieutenant colonel who became NRA president in 2018, stepped down from the role after alleging other leadership had engaged in financial improprieties.

His departure revealed a fractured organization and internal power struggle in which North and his supporters had reportedly tried to oust LaPierre, the NRA CEO and executive vice president who has led the organization of more than 5 million members since 1991.

LaPierre later accused North of trying to extort him. But the longtime public face of the NRA has also come under scrutiny from major donors worried about the group’s revenue and mounting legal troubles.

Image: Wayne LaPierre
Wayne LaPierre, chief executive officer of the National Rifle Association (NRA), stands on stage at the National Rifle Association Institute for Legislative Action (NRA-ILA) Leadership Forum during the NRA annual meeting in Indianapolis, Ind., on April 26, 2019.Daniel Acker / Bloomberg via Getty Images

After learning of James’ probe last year, Trump defended the NRA, tweeting that the group was “under siege” by her and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, both Democrats, “who are illegally using the State’s legal apparatus to take down and destroy this very important organization, & others.”

William A. Brewer III, an attorney representing the NRA, said in a statement in December that the “financial records of the NRA and affiliates were audited and reported in tax filings, in accordance with state and federal regulations — a fact that underscores the Association’s commitment to good governance.”

He added that James’ investigation had a “partisan purpose — not an actual concern that the NRA is not effectively using its assets to pursue its members interests.”

While the NRA is headquartered in Fairfax County, Virginia, the New York attorney general has investigatory authority over its status as a not-for-profit organization as it is chartered in New York. The group remains the most powerful gun lobby in the United States, though amid the coronavirus pandemic, it has laid off or furloughed dozens of employees and cut salaries