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Lawsuit accusing NRA of lavish misspending now heads to jury

Wayne LaPierre, CEO of the National Rifle Association, arrives at court in New York, Jan. 8, 2024.
Seth Wenig
/
AP
Wayne LaPierre, CEO of the National Rifle Association, arrives at court in New York, Jan. 8, 2024.

NEW YORK — The National Rifle Association and its ex-CEO were caught "with their hands in the cookie jar," a lawyer with the New York Attorney General's Office said Thursday, at the conclusion of a civil trial accusing the gun rights group's executives of wildly misspending millions of dollars on private flights, vacations and other lavish perks.

Earlier in closing arguments to the Manhattan jury, an attorney for Wayne LaPierre, the powerful nonprofit advocacy organization's long-serving leader, had dismissed the case as a political witch hunt by New York Attorney General Letitia James. The NRA's lawyer, meanwhile, said it could not be held accountable for LaPierre's actions.

Assistant Attorney General Monica Connell countered that the NRA and its executives were doing everything they could to deny, deflect and soften the blow of the accusations.

"They're going to try to get you to think about anything except what happened to those cookies," she said. "They're going to blame anyone else but themselves."

The case, which unfolded over a six-week trial, now heads to the jury, which is expected to begin deliberations Friday after receiving verdict instructions from the judge.

State lawyers said at the trial that LaPierre, who announced his resignation just days before the trial opened in early January, billed the NRA more than $11 million for private jet flights and spent more than $500,000 on eight trips to the Bahamas over a three-year span. They also say he authorized $135 million in NRA contracts for a vendor whose owners showered him with free trips to the Bahamas, Greece, Dubai and India, and gave him access to a 108-foot (33-meter) yacht.

Testifying over multiple days, LaPierre claimed he hadn't realized the travel tickets, hotel stays, meals, yacht access and other luxury perks counted as gifts, even as he conceded he wrongly expensed private flights for his family and accepted vacations from vendors doing business with the NRA without disclosing them.

During Thursday's closing arguments, LaPierre's lawyer P. Kent Correll argued that LaPierre's use of private flights was necessary for safety reasons, given his prominence in the contentious gun debate. The costly flights were not for personal gain, but to raise huge sums of money for the organization and gun rights causes broadly, he said.

"He was a visionary. He was a genius," Correll said, dismissing the state's allegations.

He also argued James had called the NRA a "terrorist organization" and campaigned on a promise to destroy it.

"This is a story made up by a person with an agenda that wanted him off the field," said Correll, as he dinged James, a Democrat, for not even being present in court Thursday. "If this case was so important, why wouldn't she be here?"

But Connell, the state's lawyer, countered that if LaPierre truly had concerns for his safety, he should have raised them with the NRA's board and received approval for the expenses.

The NRA's lawyer, meanwhile, argued that the organization worked to address problems soon after they came to light through whistleblower complaints.

"When the fraud was discovered, it dug in. It turned over the rocks it was told not to overturn," Sarah Rogers said. "The NRA left no stone unturned."

"If this was a case about corruption," Rogers added, "it wasn't by the NRA."

Connell argued that the NRA isn't absolved of the misdeeds of its former executives. The organization allowed LaPierre to step down without any sanction, and many of the long-serving board members who enabled his actions still remain, she said.

"Saying sorry now doesn't mean they didn't take the cookies," Connell said. "They cannot walk away from his conduct."

Lawyers for LaPierre's co-defendants argued that their clients had acted in the best interests of the NRA and didn't breach their duties to the organization, as James' office claimed.

"The man was doing his job, and he was doing it well," said William Fleming, a lawyer for NRA general counsel John Frazer, who James' office says made false statements and ignored whistleblower complaints against LaPierre.

Connell challenged that notion, saying Frazer, who attended law school at night while working at the NRA by day, simply wasn't qualified to provide legal counsel for an organization of the NRA's magnitude.

NRA general counsel John Frazer arrives at court in New York, Jan. 8, 2024.
Seth Wenig / AP
/
AP
NRA general counsel John Frazer arrives at court in New York, Jan. 8, 2024.

Mark Werbner, a lawyer for retired NRA finance chief Wilson Phillips, said his client had "acted honorably" even as James's office has said Phillips, among other things, secured a deal worth more than $1 million that benefited his girlfriend.

"The state wants to put him in bankruptcy," Werbner said, referring to the state's request that the defendants be ordered to repay the NRA. "He doesn't deserve to be made penniless."

The trial cast a spotlight on the leadership, culture and finances of the NRA, which was founded more than 150 years ago in New York City to promote riflery skills. The group has since grown into a political juggernaut that influences federal law and presidential elections.

James filed the lawsuit in 2020 under her authority to investigate nonprofits registered in the state. Her office argues that LaPierre dodged financial disclosure requirements while treating the NRA as his personal piggy bank.

During that time, according to state lawyers, LaPierre consolidated power and avoided scrutiny by hiring unqualified underlings, routing expenses through a vendor, doctoring invoices, and retaliating against board members and executives who questioned his spending.

Former NRA President Oliver North, best known for his central role in the Iran-Contra scandal of the 1980s, was among the prominent witnesses to take the stand. He testified he was ousted from the NRA after raising red flags.

Oliver North enters court in Manhattan, Jan. 23, 2024, in New York. North, best known for his central role in the Iran-Contra scandal of the 1980s, who was pushed out as president of the National Rifle Association, was among the prominent witnesses to take the stand.
Brittainy Newman / AP
/
AP
Oliver North enters court in Manhattan, Jan. 23, 2024, in New York. North, best known for his central role in the Iran-Contra scandal of the 1980s, who was pushed out as president of the National Rifle Association, was among the prominent witnesses to take the stand.

Besides paying back the NRA, James' office also wants the defendants banned from serving in leadership positions at any charitable organizations conducting business in New York.

Another former NRA executive turned whistleblower, Joshua Powell, settled with James' office last month, agreeing to testify at the trial, pay the NRA $100,000 and forgo further involvement with nonprofits.

The NRA, meanwhile, remains a strong but tarnished political force. In recent years, the advocacy group has been beset by financial troubles, dwindling membership, board member infighting and lingering questions about LaPierre's leadership.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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