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Jury finds NRA, Wayne LaPierre liable in civil corruption case

Former NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre (second from right) leaves New York State Supreme Court on Wednesday. Top NRA executives for were accused of using millions in donations for private luxuries.
Frank Franklin II
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AP
Former NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre (second from right) leaves New York State Supreme Court on Wednesday. Top NRA executives for were accused of using millions in donations for private luxuries.

Updated February 23, 2024 at 7:22 PM ET

A Manhattan jury found three top executives of the National Rifle Association liable Friday in a lengthy civil trial that focused on alleged corruption and the misspending of millions of dollars.

Longtime NRA leader Wayne LaPierre, a key architect in the nonprofit's hardline gun rights agenda who stepped down as CEO last month, was central to the case brought by New York state Attorney General Letitia James.

After a six week trial and a week of deliberations, a jurors found that LaPierre "violated his statutory obligation to discharge the duties of his position in good faith."

They concluded that he had caused roughly $5.4 million worth of harm to the nonprofit group's finances — though they also found that LaPierre had already repaid about $1 million.

LaPierre sat in the courtroom looking on as the jury verdict was read and later declined to comment as he left the courthouse. His legal team said it plans to appeal.

The lawsuit also named NRA general counsel and secretary John Frazer and former chief financial officer Wilson "Woody" Phillips.

Jurors found Phillips liable for $2 million in damages. While they concluded that Frazer acted inappropriately, they verdict found no measurable financial harm.

"For years, Wayne LaPierre used charitable dollars to fund his lavish lifestyle, spending millions on luxury travel, expensive clothes, insider contracts, and other perks for himself and his family," James said in a statement. "But today, after years of rampant corruption and self-dealing, Wayne LaPierre and the NRA are finally being held accountable."

'Hands in the cookie jar'

The executives were accused of misappropriating and mismanaging funds donated to the gun rights group's members. According to James, their actions led to "the loss of more than $64 million in just three years."

During the six-week trial, state lawyers alleged that LaPierre had spent over $11 million for private flights and approved $135 million in NRA contracts in exchange for yacht access and free trips to the Bahamas, Greece and other vacation hotspots, The Associated Press reported.

Both LaPierre and the NRA denied the allegations.

LaPierre has called the case a political witch hunt by the Democratic New York attorney general. The NRA's legal team said the organization was the victim in the corruption case.

In a ruling last year, New York State Supreme Court Justice Joel M. Cohen rejected those arguments and allowed the case to move forward.

"[T]he NRA's factual allegations do not support any viable legal claims that the Attorney General's investigation was unconstitutionally retaliatory or selective," Cohen wrote.

Lawyers for the state, meanwhile, argued that the NRA and other executives enabled LaPierre's misconduct and his ability to resign without consequence.

The NRA, LaPierre and the two other defendants — former CFO Wilson Phillips and general counsel John Frazer — were caught "with their hands in the cookie jar," New York Assistant Attorney General Monica Connell said in trial closing arguments on Thursday.

"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 ruling deals another blow to the gun rights group whose political influence has dwindled in recent years.

"We're two months into 2024 and the NRA has already managed to lose this trial, their longtime leader, and whatever political relevance it had left," Nick Suplina, senior vice president for law and policy at Everytown for Gun Safety said after the verdict. "This verdict confirms what we've seen inrecent elections, in state legislatures, and in the halls of Congress: the gun lobby has never been weaker and the gun safety movement has never beenstronger."

James had asked the court to force the individual defendants to pay restitution to the NRA and to ban them from working in leadership positions at any nonprofit organization in New York.

She had also asked the court to appoint an independent compliance monitor to keep watch over the NRA's assets.

James has a history of bringing high-profile cases against powerful targets. She oversaw the sexual harassment investigation that led to Gov. Andrew Cuomo's resignation, and has secured more than $2 billion in settlements from companies in the opioid industry. Her lawsuit against former President Donald Trump could cost him $355 million in a civil fraud case, though he has promised to appeal.

The decline of NRA as a political force

LaPierre spent three decades growing the NRA's political and lobbying influence. Even as mass shootings became commonplace, LaPierre rejected attempts to change gun policy, branding gun control proponents as enemies of freedom and using the threat of firearms regulation to fundraise.

His resignation was announced just days before the trial began, with the NRA instead citing health as the reason for his departure.

The NRA's grip on politics has weakened in recent years as it's faced declining membership and revenue, and concerns within the group over leadership's direction and misuse of funds.

After James' office launched an investigation into the NRA's financial misconduct, the attorney general filed the corruption lawsuit against the organization in 2020.

The NRA tried declare bankruptcy in 2021, but a judge dismissed the group's petition, ruling that the filing was not made in good faith.

The NRA won a legal victory in 2022 when a judge denied James' bid to dissolve the organization, but the case against the NRA was allowed to moved forward.

NPR's Joel Rose contributed reporting for this story. contributed to this story

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

Corrected: February 23, 2024 at 12:00 AM EST
A previous version of this story incorrectly said Wayne LaPierre has already repaid the NRA about $2 million. The figure is closer to $1 million.
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Brian Mann
Brian Mann is NPR's first national addiction correspondent. He also covers breaking news in the U.S. and around the world.