NEW YORK (AP) — The longtime head of the National Rifle Association operated as the “King of the NRA,” spending lavishly on himself, punishing dissent and showering allies with country club memberships and no-show contracts, a lawyer for the New York attorney general’s office told jurors Monday.
Wayne LaPierre’s methods as the NRA’s executive vice president and chief executive officer allowed him to operate the powerful gun rights organization “as Wayne’s World for decades,” Assistant Attorney General Monica Connell argued in an opening statement in a civil trial scrutinizing his leadership and spending at the nonprofit.
LaPierre, who said Friday he is leaving the NRA after leading it since 1991, watched stoically from a seat along a courtroom wall as six jurors and six alternates were seated for the trial, which is expected to take six weeks. He moved to the front of the gallery as Connell spoke, her argument augmented by a slideshow showing the NRA’s leadership structure and expenses at issue in the case.
Connell said LaPierre charged the organization more than $11 million for private jet flights over the years and authorized $135 million in NRA contracts for a vendor whose owners provided him repeated access to a 108-foot (33-meter) yacht and free trips to the Bahamas, Greece, Dubai and India.
At the same time, LaPierre, 74, consolidated power and avoided scrutiny by hiring unqualified underlings who looked the other way, routing expenses through a vendor, doctoring invoices, and retaliating against board members and executives who questioned his spending, Connell said.
In one example, Connell said, the NRA’s former chief financial officer, Craig Spray, found himself unable to log into the organization’s computer system after he objected to LaPierre’s way of doing business. In a November 2020 email to organization brass, Spray took issue with the boss’ authoritarian rule, writing: “There are no ‘Wayne said’ approvals at the NRA.”
LaPierre kept quiet about gifts he received from vendors until the morning he testified in the NRA’s failed bankruptcy in Texas in 2021, Connell said. For years before that, she said, he’d been checking “no” on an internal disclosure form that asked if he’d received any gifts worth more than $300.
LaPierre’s actions and that of the “entrenched leadership” that enabled his alleged behavior “breached the trust” of the organization’s five million members, Connell said. Their conduct violated laws governing nonprofit charities and the organization’s internal policies governing travel, expenses, conflicts of interest and whistleblower protections, she said.
“They acted illegally over and over again for years,” Connell told jurors.
New York Attorney General Letitia James sued the NRA, LaPierre and three current or former executives in 2020, alleging they cost the organization tens of millions of dollars from questionable expenditures. In recent years, though, the organization has been beset by financial troubles, dwindling membership and infighting.
LaPierre is accused of setting himself up with a $17 million contract with the NRA if he were to exit the organization, and spending NRA money on travel consultants, luxury car services and five-star travel.
Defense lawyers are expected to give their opening statements Tuesday. LaPierre has defended himself in the past, testifying in another proceeding that his yacht trips were a “security retreat” because he was facing threats after mass shootings.
The other defendants, NRA general counsel John Frazer and retired CFO Wilson Phillips, have denied wrongdoing. Another ex-NRA executive turned whistleblower, Joshua Powell, settled with James’ office on Friday. He has agreed to testify at the trial, pay the NRA $100,000 and forgo further nonprofit involvement.
One private jet flight, from Washington, D.C. to Dallas, Texas, with a stop in Nebraska to pick up LaPierre’s niece, cost the NRA $59,000, Cornell said. Another, with a Nebraska pitstop on the way to Orlando, Florida, cost the organization $79,000, Cornell said. An NRA policy shown in court said the organization only reimburses for coach-class airline flights. A commercial flight on the same routes would’ve run no more than a few hundred dollars per person, listings show.
James, a Democrat, is the state’s chief law enforcement officer and has regulatory power over nonprofit organizations incorporated in the state, such as the NRA. James initially sought to shut the organization down, but a judge rejected that as a remedy.
Now, James is asking that LaPierre and the other defendants be ordered to pay the NRA back and that they be banned from serving in leadership positions of any charitable organizations conducting business in the state — such as accepting donations from New Yorkers or having state residents as members. That would effectively bar them from any NRA involvement.
The NRA trial is being held in the same Manhattan courtroom as former President Donald Trump’s civil fraud trial. Closing arguments in that case are scheduled for Thursday, forcing the NRA trial to relocate to a different courtroom for a few days.
LaPierre said he would resign at the end of the month. The NRA said he was exiting for health reasons. NRA lawyers argued in a court filing over the weekend that LaPierre’s departure is an example of “clear corrective action” taken by the organization, but state lawyers disputed that.
The NRA was chartered as a nonprofit in New York in 1871 by Union Army officers who wanted to improve marksmanship among soldiers after the Civil War. Some of the organization’s earliest meetings were at an armory about 1.5 miles (2.4 kilometers) north of the courthouse where the trial is being held.
LaPierre is expected to testify, possibly as early as this week, along with one of his chief nemeses: former NRA board member and president Lt. Col. Oliver North.
A major signal of internal strife roiling the NRA burst onto the public scene in 2019, when North tried to oust LaPierre with damaging allegations about travel expenses and accusations that LaPierre had charged tens of thousands of dollars in wardrobe purchases to his expense account.
LaPierre complained that North had “started to interfere” with his leadership and, with allies among most of the organization’s 76 board members, won the struggle. North was ousted instead.
Associated Press reporter Lindsay Whitehurst in Washington, D.C. contributed to this report.