The National Rifle Association has for decades been one of the most powerful lobby groups in the US, fending off attempts to rein in gun laws through the strength of its millions of members.
But even as it tallied successes in recent years, cracks have emerged as members and powerful donors shared concerns about its spending, management and the widening gap between leadership and the rank-and-file.
New York’s attorney general, Letitia James, gave ground to those concerns in a civil lawsuit filed on Thursday that alleges “brazen illegality” in the NRA and seeks to dissolve the organization.
The 168-page lawsuit outlines the workings of an organization in which, allegedly, dissent was not tolerated, spending was not disclosed or approved through the proper channels, and oversight was negligent.
The NRA announced it was counter-suing the attorney general’s office on Thursday and said the lawsuit was a politicized attack on the organization.
“You could have set your watch by it: the investigation was going to reach its crescendo as we move into the 2020 election cycle,” the NRA president, Carolyn Meadows, said in a statement. “It’s a transparent attempt to score political points and attack the leading voice in opposition to the leftist agenda.”
These are some of the key takeaways of the lawsuit:
NRA leader allegedly used gun lobby as his ‘personal piggy bank’
The lawsuit accused the NRA’s leader of nearly 30 years, Wayne LaPierre, of extensive use of the organization’s funds for personal travel, including flights in which his family or associates were on board but he was not.
From May 2015 to April 2019, the NRA incurred over $1m in private flight expenses when LaPierre was not a passenger. The complaint said the NRA’s board did not authorize or consent to these expenses.
The complaint details several of these private flights, including one which cost $15,000 to get his niece’s husband from a convention for the hunting group the Safari Club in Las Vegas to Nebraska.
LaPierre testified to the attorney general’s office that his niece was working at the convention, so he flew her husband out to help with childcare, but then her husband had to return to Nebraska for work before the convention ended. “[I]t’s really almost very hard to get commercial flights back,” LaPierre testified.
NRA would still pay LaPierre at least $1m a year after he left the organization, according to the complaint
If LaPierre lost a re-election bid or retired, he would be paid at least $1m a year, per a post-employment contract referenced in the lawsuit. There is no evidence this contract was reviewed or approved by the group’s board or any other committee, nor is there evidence it was disclosed to membership, according to the complaint.
“I didn’t ask for this contract,” LaPierre testified to the attorney general’s office, saying extensions to the contract were prompted by a desire to retain rights over his name and likeness.
LaPierre continued: “It’s what was presented to me and I signed it and it never went into effect because I stayed on as EVP [executive vice-president].”
The NRA’s chief legal officer was allegedly underqualified
Four current and former members of the NRA’s senior leadership are named as defendants in the lawsuit, including John Frazer, the group’s general counsel.
The complaint alleges Frazer was “unprepared to manage the legal and regulatory affairs of the NRA” after working in private practice as a lawyer for only 18 months.
He first started at the NRA in 1993, became a licensed attorney in 2008 and then briefly left the organization to work as a lawyer before returning in 2015.
Frazer also served as the group’s secretary, “but has little apparent knowledge of the requirements of New York law governing not-for-profit corporations,” according to the complaint.
He is accused of allowing the organization to secretly pay millions to several board members through consulting agreements that were not disclosed or approved by the board.
Senior leadership allegedly ignored oversight infrastructure
In allegations raging from conflict-of-interest contracts and expensed Christmas gifts, there is a pattern of senior NRA leadership, including LaPierre and Frazer, violating the organization’s disclosure rules. The two other named defendants are the NRA’s former treasurer and chief financial officer, Wilson “Woody” Phillips and the former chief of staff and executive director of general operations, Joshua Powell.
“For instance, LaPierre and Phillips entered into post-employment agreements with departing officers and employees that provided excessive payments in exchange for little, if any, services and non-disclosure/non-disparagement agreements,” the complaint said.
“Powell secured contracts that benefited his family members without disclosure of his familial relationship. And Frazer permitted the NRA to secretly pay millions of dollars to several board members through consulting arrangements that were neither disclosed to, nor approved by, the NRA board.”
Efforts to challenge LaPierre were allegedly ‘quashed or ignored’
Before the complaint was made public, reports of LaPierre’s tight grip on the organization were well known.
In April 2019, as the organization showed signs of strain, its president, Oliver North, announced, he would not seek re-election amid reports he was in a power struggle with LaPierre.
The complaint appears to reference that battle, without naming North. It said: “LaPierre withdrew his critical support after the president began to independently assess the governance of the NRA upon learning of complaints by whistleblowers, senior staff and donors.”
The complaint also identifies an instance where senior members of the NRA’s financial staff made a whistleblower complaint itemizing “numerous practices that abused NRA assets”.
Complaints about Powell, the former chief of staff, were also allegedly never investigated.