New York’s attorney general filed a lawsuit Thursday to dissolve the National Rifle Association after an 18-month probe found the organization “fraught with fraud and abuse,” though the damage to the struggling gun rights group could be more political than legal.
State Attorney General Letitia James accused top officials at the NRA of diverting millions of dollars of charitable donations made to the lobbying group and squandering it on family vacations, private jets and expensive dinners.
Current and former executives “instituted a culture of self-dealing mismanagement” to benefit themselves and their families, causing the organization to lose $64 million in three years, Ms. James said.
Even if the NRA successfully knocks back the lawsuit, the damage to the brand ahead of a presidential election is incalculable, according to analysts.
In 2016, the NRA spent more than $30 million on behalf of the Trump campaign, according to Federal Election Commission data. The group spent a total of $54 million on the 2016 elections, largely supporting pro-gun, Republican candidates.
“Short term, this hurts the NRA because it impacts their means to do their normal stuff, but also gun owners are going to wonder what the hell is going on at the NRA when [CEO] Wayne LaPierre is making millions and they want $25 from me,” said Richard Feldman, a former NRA lobbyist.
He said the lawsuit’s timing was suspicious.
NRA President Carolyn Meadows called Ms. James’ lawsuit a “baseless, premeditated attack on the group” and a nakedly political move ahead of the November elections.
“It’s a transparent attempt to score political points and attack the leading voice in opposition to the leftist agenda,” Ms. Meadows said. “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.”
Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry called the lawsuit a “manipulation of our legal system for political gain.”
“The New York attorney general is shamefully abusing her power to target a political adversary,” he said. “This action is no different than what Democrats did during the shameful impeachment of President Trump: an attempt to use the levers of government to go after political opponents.”
Gun control advocates hailed Ms. James’ actions.
“Even casual observers of the NRA have seen it turn from a safety-focused nonprofit into a front group for gun manufacturers and a personal piggy bank for its leadership,” said John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety.
“Everytown has been warning regulators and the public about this corruption for years. The NRA has endangered millions of lives and done unspeakable damage to our political system, and we agree with Attorney General James that dissolution and all other remedies must be on the table,” he said.
Alan Gottlieb, founder of the pro-gun Second Amendment Foundation, predicted the NRA will bounce back.
“Fortunately for the gun rights movement, the strength of the NRA is not only in its leadership but in its members,” he said. “Its members will not abandon the fight to protect Second Amendment rights.”
Ms. James said the NRA’s outsized influence is what led to the fraud and abuse, arguing that it had grown so powerful that it “went unchecked for decades while top executives funneled millions into their own pockets.”
The NRA’s legal address gave Ms. James the opening to go after it in the New York State Supreme Court.
The gun rights group has headquarters in Fairfax, Virginia, just outside the District of Columbia, but it has operated as a New York-registered nonprofit since 1871. The New York registration gives Ms. James jurisdiction over the group.
As a nonprofit, the NRA is allowed to use money only to further its mission and serve the interests of its members.
President Trump, who has had robust support from the NRA and boasts that he is a lifetime member, called the lawsuit “a terrible thing.”
He told reporters that the organization should “move to Texas and lead a beautiful life” there.
Mr. Feldman said when he was at the NRA he had pushed to register in a more gun-friendly state but was rebuffed.
“Whether the allegations in the lawsuit are truthful or provable, they shouldn’t have been a New York state corporation for the last 20 years,” he said. “They should never have been under the jurisdiction of New York.”
Registering elsewhere is problematic because of the litigation’s expense and it won’t make Ms. James’ lawsuit go away since the alleged wrongdoing occurred while it was a New York nonprofit.
At least one other jurisdiction has sharpened its knives against the NRA.
D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine on Thursday filed a lawsuit accusing the NRA of misusing charitable funds. Mr. Racine said NRA leadership skirted the law by allowing charitable funds to be used for noncharitable purposes.
Mr. Feldman said the actions of the attorneys general are clearly politically motivated.
“If you had a pro-gun attorney general of New York, they’d likely say, ‘There is something wrong here and we will take a good hard look and we will do so after the election,’” he said. “That is the most suspicious part: the timing.”
Nonetheless, Ms. James raised serious allegations in her lawsuit. She accuses NRA executives of a litany of crimes, including false reporting of annual filings with the IRS and New York charities’ bureau and overpaying friends to do work for which they were not qualified.
The lawsuit demands four key executives — CEO and Executive Director Wayne LaPierre, Secretary John Frazer, former Chief Financial Officer Wilson “Woody” Phillips and former Director of Operations Josh Powell — pay back what the lawsuit says are ill-gotten gains. Prosecutors also asked to bar them from ever serving on the board of a New York charity.
Mr. LaPierre, who has run the NRA since 1991, used the group’s funds for hair and makeup touch-ups for his wife and eight trips to the Bahamas in three years, totaling $500,000, the lawsuit says. He is also accused of improperly accepting lavish gifts, including the use of a 107-foot yacht.
In a statement, Mr. LaPierre called the lawsuit “an unconstitutional, premeditated attack aiming to dismantle and destroy the NRA.”
“The NRA is well governed, financially solvent and committed to good governance. We’re ready for the fight. Bring it on,” he said.
Mr. Phillips is accused of arranging a $1 million contract for his girlfriend, and Mr. Powell is accused of securing a $5 million consulting contract for a firm where his wife worked as well as a $90,000 photography job for his father.
The powerful gun rights group has been rife with internal and external problems in recent years. Ms. James had been investigating allegations of criminal wrongdoing for at least 18 months.
“While there is no doubt both of these attorney generals are opponents of Second Amendment rights and have an ax to grind, these are serious allegations that have not been put to bed by the leadership of the NRA over the last several years,” Mr. Gottlieb said.
Mr. Feldman agreed, calling the NRA’s wounds “self-inflicted.”
“What seems to have happened is that the NRA became less about protecting the Second Amendment and more about protecting the NRA,” he said.
In April 2019, NRA President Oliver North left the group after an apparent failed coup against Mr. LaPierre.
Two months later, Chris W. Cox, the longtime head of the NRA’s legislative lobbying arm, resigned after he was accused of taking part in the coup. Mr. Cox denied the allegations but had been suspended as the group looked into the issue.
The NRA went through a messy public breakup last year with Ackerman McQueen, its former longtime advertising and public relations firm that helped turn the gun rights group into a political and cultural force over the past few decades.
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