The New York Attorney General filed a lawsuit against the National Rifle Association on Thursday, seeking to dissolve the powerful gun lobby for a multitude of alleged violations of state law governing charities.
Attorney General Letitia James accused the NRA of an array of “illegal conduct,” according to a press release describing the suit, including “[the] diversion of millions of dollars away from the charitable mission of the organization 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 civil lawsuit, filed in Manhattan Supreme Court, also names as defendants longtime NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre and three other NRA executives – Wilson “Woody” Philips, John Frazer and Joshua Powell – and seeks their removal from their current positions and prohibition from their future service on any other New York-based nonprofit board. Those four executives “failed to fulfill their fiduciary duty to the NRA,” James alleged, “and used millions upon millions from NRA reserves for personal use, including trips for them and their families to the Bahamas, private jets, expensive meals, and other private travel.”
The lawsuit singled out LaPierre, in particular, for enabling a culture of self-dealing, mismanagement, and negligent oversight at the NRA, often for his personal benefit.
“With the assistance of Phillips, Powell and Frazer, LaPierre abused his position as a fiduciary to the NRA to obtain millions of dollars in personal benefits in the form of undisclosed, excessive compensation,” the lawsuit said, “which includes in-kind benefits and reimbursements from the NRA and its vendors.”
But James is demanding more than a change in leadership. The corruption within the organization, she argued, is pervasive, as senior leaders “blatantly ignored” internal policies, while the board’s audit committee was “negligent” in providing oversight.
James wants to see the entire 149-year-old organization, which is chartered in New York, “shuttering its doors.”
“The NRA’s influence has been so powerful that the organization went unchecked for decades while top executives funneled millions into their own pockets,” said Attorney General James in a statement, according to the release. “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.”
The NRA quickly filed a countersuit against the attorney general. In a statement, NRA President Carolyn Meadows vowed to fight what she considers a politically motivated attack.
“This was a baseless, premeditated attack on our organization and the Second Amendment freedoms it fights to defend,” said Meadows. “You could have set your watch by it: the investigation was going to reach its crescendo as we move into the 2020 election cycle. It’s a transparent attempt to score political points and attack the leading voice in opposition to the leftist agenda. 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. As evidenced by the lawsuit filed by the NRA today against the NY AG, we not only will not shrink from this fight – we will confront it and prevail.”
LaPierre echoed that sentiment with a similar statement of his own and also dismissed any allegations of financial mismanagement within the organization.
“The NYAG’s actions are an affront to democracy and freedom,” LaPierre said. “This is an unconstitutional, premeditated attack aiming to dismantle and destroy the NRA – the fiercest defender of America’s freedom at the ballot box for decades. The NRA is well governed, financially solvent, and committed to good governance. We’re ready for the fight. Bring it on.”
The NRA has been a major force in Republican Party politics for decades and, more recently, has emerged as a key source of support for President Donald Trump. In the 2016 election, various arms of the NRA were responsible for directing more than $50 million into political campaigns, including $30 million to back then-candidate Trump, according the federal election data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.
In response to questions from reporters on Thursday, President Trump called the move “terrible” and suggested that the NRA should move to another state, such as Texas, where the organization could “lead a very good and beautiful life.”
But New York wasn’t the only jurisdiction to take aim at the NRA on Thursday. At the same time, in a separate but similar action, Attorney General for the District of Columbia Karl Racine also filed a lawsuit against the NRA and the NRA Foundation, its D.C.-based charitable arm, for “misusing charitable funds to support wasteful spending by the NRA and its executives.”
The Foundation’s Board of Directors was “controlled by the NRA and allowed the NRA to exploit it through risky multi-million-dollar loans,” the complaint alleges, according to a press release, “including a $5 million loan that the NRA has never repaid.”
Racine is seeking to recover the allegedly wasted funds and asking the court to impose changes to the foundation’s governance structure to ensure its independence from the NRA.
“Charitable organizations function as public trusts—and District law requires them to use their funds to benefit the public, not to support political campaigns, lobbying, or private interests,” said Racine in a statement. “With this lawsuit, we aim to recover donated funds that the NRA Foundation wasted. District nonprofits should be on notice that the Office of the Attorney General will file suit if we find evidence of illegal behavior.”
The filing in New York is the culmination of a 17-month investigation into the organization’s finances and its nonprofit status launched in April 2019 in the wake of revelations about questionable spending practices inside the NRA that were further detailed in an anonymous leak of internal documents.
In April, the NRA sued its longtime ad agency Ackerman McQueen, the contractor behind NRATV, raising questions about the firm’s relationship with then-NRA President retired Lt. Col. Oliver North. Days later, The New Yorker published an investigation by Mike Spies of the nonprofit journalism outlet The Trace that claimed “memos created by a senior N.R.A. employee describe a workplace distinguished by secrecy, self-dealing, and greed, whose leaders have encouraged disastrous business ventures and questionable partnerships, and have marginalized those who object.”
Later that same month, The New York Times reported that in a letter sent to NRA board members, LaPierre accused North of extorting him, threatening to release damaging information about the NRA unless LaPierre resigned from his post as chief executive officer. Ultimately, however, it was North who would step down as president, losing the apparent power struggle.
Then, in May, a trove of what appeared to be internal NRA documents were anonymously posted online, raising more questions about LaPierre’s leadership amid mounting allegations of financial mismanagement within the gun lobby.
The leaked documents included letters that appeared to show that North had raised serious concerns with the organization’s audit committee about $24 million in legal fees paid to the firm of outside counsel William Brewer over the previous year. ABC News was not been able to verify the authenticity of the documents, but NRA officials did not dispute that they were real, instead calling the leak “pathetic.”
Those fees, estimated in one letter to cost the organization nearly $100,000 per day, “are draining NRA cash at mindboggling speed,” wrote North and NRA Vice President Richard Childress on April 18 as they urged the committee to authorize an independent review.
“Invoices of this size for 12 months of work appear to be excessive and pose an existential threat to the financial stability of the NRA,” the letter reads. “This is a fiscal emergency.”
The leaked documents also included purported letters to LaPierre from Ackerman McQueen’s chief financial officer William Winkler seeking more information about $274,965.03 in wardrobe expenses made at Zegna in Beverly Hills and $267,460.53 of other personal expenses – primarily travel to the Bahamas, Palm Beach, New York, Los Angeles, Reno, Budapest and Italy – apparently for LaPierre but charged to Ackerman McQueen.
That latter total also includes $13,804.84 for an apartment in Fairfax, Virginia that, according to the letter, LaPierre “required we rent” and “billed to the NRA” for a young woman who, according to LinkedIn, was then an intern at the organization.
In response to questions, however, top NRA officials have continued to express their support of LaPierre.
“This is stale news – being recycled by those with personal agendas," said NRA president Meadows last year. "In any event, the entire board is fully aware of these issues. We have full confidence in Wayne LaPierre and the work he’s doing in support of the NRA and its members. It is troubling and a bit pathetic that some people would resort to leaking information to advance their agendas. This has no bearing on the board’s support of Wayne – and the work the NRA does to protect America’s constitutional freedoms."
As NRA in-fighting spilled into public view, other investigators opened similar probes. The Office of the Attorney General for the District of Columbia issued subpoenas as part of “an investigation into whether these entities violated the District’s Nonprofit Act,” and a Democratic lawmaker and member of the House Ways & Means Committee released a report detailing the NRA’s alleged “self-dealing, corruption and abuse of its tax-exempt status” and urged the Internal Revenue Service to investigate.
The investigation that resulted in Thursday’s lawsuit was led by the New York Attorney General’s Charities Bureau, which “supervises the activity of foundations and other charities to ensure that their funds and other property devoted to charitable purposes are properly used,” according to the bureau's website. Thursday’s lawsuit seeks restitution for NRA members who were allegedly defrauded and additional penalties worth millions of dollars.
The New York charities bureau is the same team that forced the Trump Foundation to dissolve in 2018 for alleged misappropriations of charitable funds to service Trump’s business and political interest.
In a press conference on Thursday, James said the investigation is ongoing, and while the lawsuit is a civil matter, any potential criminal activity they uncover will be referred to prosecutors.
“Enough was enough,” James said. “We needed to step in and dissolve this [organization] just as we did with the Trump Foundation.”
ABC News’ Katherine Faulders contributed to this report.
This report was featured in the Friday, Aug. 7, 2020, episode of “Start Here,” ABC News’ daily news podcast.
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