NRA civil trial threatens to shake up gun rights organization even with leader’s resignation

Wayne LaPierre’s civil trial, slated to begin Monday in New York, still threatens to unravel the National Rifle Association despite his resignation from the powerful and prominent gun rights group.

LaPierre, 74, had led the NRA for more than 30 years as the organization’s executive vice president. He announced his departure Friday as jury selection neared an end.

He, along with two other current and former NRA leaders and the organization as a whole are fending off a lawsuit brought by New York Attorney General Letitia James in 2020 that alleges they violated nonprofit laws and misused millions of dollars of NRA funds to finance lavish lifestyles for themselves.

The jury will spend the next six weeks in a Manhattan courtroom hearing testimony from roughly 120 witnesses.

If the jurors find the individual defendants liable, they will recommend the amount of money that each defendant would have to repay the NRA.

They would have also been tasked with recommending whether LaPierre should be ousted from the helm of the group, which is now moot.

But the trial outcome may still have important ramifications, according to Shannon Watts, who founded the gun safety group Moms Demand Action in 2012 in part to challenge the gun lobby.

State Supreme Court Judge Joel Cohen, who has the final say over monetary damages and remedies, could determine whether the defendants should be permanently barred from serving on the board of any charity in New York and whether an independent monitor should oversee the NRA’s finances.

“It was never just about Wayne LaPierre,” Watts said, adding that the organization “needs to be taken down at the studs.”

In his announcement, LaPierre said he has been a “card-carrying member” of the NRA for most of his adult life and that he would “never stop supporting the NRA and its fight to defend Second Amendment freedom.”

“My passion for our cause burns as deeply as ever,” LaPierre said. He cited health reasons for his exit, which will take effect Jan. 31.

James touted LaPierre’s resignation as “an important victory.”

“LaPierre’s resignation validates our claims against him, but it will not insulate him from accountability,” she said in a statement. “We look forward to presenting our case in court.”

A ‘personal piggy bank’

The lawsuit alleges that LaPierre diverted millions of dollars away from the group’s charitable mission for his personal use of private jets, expensive meals, travel consultants, private security and trips to the Bahamas for him and his family.

The attorney general claims LaPierre spent more than $500,000 of the NRA’s assets to fly himself and his family members to the Bahamas. From May 2015 to April 2019, the NRA incurred over $1 million in expenses for private flights on which LaPierre was not a passenger, according to the lawsuit.

LaPierre received more than $1.2 million in expense reimbursements from 2013 to 2017, the lawsuit alleges.

The other defendants are also accused of violating nonprofit laws and internal policies as they enriched themselves, the suit says, contributing to the NRA’s loss of more than $64 million in three years.

They are Wilson “Woody” Phillips, a former NRA treasurer and chief financial officer, and John Frazer, the corporate secretary and general counsel.

Joshua Powell, a former chief of staff and executive director of general operations, was also a defendant. But he told NBC News on Friday evening that he had officially settled the case against him. The attorney general’s office confirmed the settlement in a statement Saturday.

NBC News reached out to Phillips for comment but he did not immediately respond. Frazer declined to comment.

At a news conference announcing the lawsuit in 2020, James, a Democrat, accused the four defendants of using the NRA as a “personal piggy bank.”

None of the defendants has been criminally charged as part of James’ lawsuit.

Potential key moments

The defendants have collectively named 86 witnesses, a court filing shows. The plaintiffs named 36 witnesses, including former NRA higher-ups.

One of them is Oliver North, a former NRA president who was in a heated battle with LaPierre when he left the group in 2019. North had reportedly attempted to remove LaPierre from NRA leadership after he began investigating possible financial improprieties.

Another key witness for the plaintiffs is Chris Cox, the NRA’s longtime top lobbyist before he was pushed out of the group in 2019 amid leadership turmoil.

The testimonies from the two former NRA insiders, who have not yet spoken publicly, could reveal details that may be especially eye-opening to current NRA members, according to Justin Wagner, senior director of investigations with Everytown for Gun Safety, a national gun violence prevention nonprofit.

“This is a monumental moment in the organization’s history,” said Wagner, who is also a former prosecutor in the New York attorney general’s office.

“The main witnesses to the NRA’s mismanagement are adamant gun rights supporters,” he added. “I think those firsthand accounts will really be impactful at trial.”

The plaintiffs have asked for two hours to deliver their opening statements Monday, a court filing shows. The remarks come after failed attempts by the defendants to dismiss the lawsuit, change the court venue and countersue. The NRA also filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

James initially set out to dissolve the NRA as part of her suit. However, Cohen dismissed that effort in 2022, saying her complaint “does not allege the type of public harm that is the legal linchpin for imposing the ‘corporate death penalty.’”

The lawsuit also targets the NRA as a whole. The organization has operated as a nonprofit charitable corporation in New York since 1871. Its assets are required by law to be used in a way that serves the interests of its membership and advances its charitable mission. 

In the last few years, the NRA has been considerably weaker, with less influence in the political sphere and fewer members, Watts and Wagner said.

Membership fell to 4.2 million from nearly 6 million five years ago, The New York Times reported. Membership dues dropped by $14 million from 2021 to 2022, according to an audit filed as part of the lawsuit.

The NRA did not respond to a request for comment about the trial. In 2020, the group said in a statement that the lawsuit was a “baseless, premeditated attack” on the NRA and on Second Amendment freedoms.

LaPierre previously called the investigation an “unconstitutional, premeditated attack aiming to dismantle and destroy the NRA.”

In a statement Friday, a spokesperson for the attorney general’s office said they “look forward to proving our case and ensuring all charities in New York adhere to the rule of law.”