This story was published in partnership with The Trace, a nonprofit news organization covering guns in America.
On July 9, 2013, Colleen Sterner, the niece of the National Rifle Association C.E.O. Wayne LaPierre, received an e-mail from a manager in the Weddings and Special Affairs division of Atlantis, a popular family resort on Paradise Island. “It gives me great pleasure to provide you with the contract for your wedding at our incredible resort!” the e-mail said. Sterner and her future husband, Terry, had booked the Simply Love plan, with a location upgrade for their ceremony. It would be held a week later, at a neighboring, more upscale property. The couple planned to exchange vows by the twelfth-century Augustinian cloisters that had been transported to the site and completed in the nineteen-sixties.
On the day of the wedding, July 16th, there was rain and lightning, and the wedding took place indoors, at Atlantis. Sterner wore a white, jewel-collared cocktail dress at a ceremony that she described in a statement as “small,” and “private.” LaPierre and his wife, Susan, were among the guests. The event was part of a trip during which the LaPierres and the Sterners cruised around the Caribbean on a luxury yacht provided by an N.R.A. contractor for free.
In 2020, New York’s attorney general, Letitia James, sued to dissolve the N.R.A. for a pattern of self-dealing that included LaPierre’s alleged acceptance of lavish gifts from contractors. Under questioning about the yacht trip, LaPierre did not disclose the wedding. Instead, he testified under oath that he used the boat that summer because his life was in imminent danger. He said that trip—the first of six annual summer voyages on the yacht in the Bahamas, from 2013 to 2018—was a “security retreat” and the only way he could be safe after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. LaPierre explained that he was under “Presidential threat without Presidential security” and that the boat “was offered” as a refuge. When he finally got to the yacht, he recalled thinking, “Thank God I’m safe, nobody can get me here.”
Internal N.R.A. documents, other records, and interviews with former staffers suggest that LaPierre repeatedly made misleading and possibly false statements under oath about the yacht and his niece. LaPierre testified that Sterner, whom he hired at the N.R.A., was an integral employee in the organization, but former colleagues, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, say she did little work.
Stephen Gillers, a professor at New York University School of Law, said that LaPierre’s testimony could strengthen the attorney general’s legal case against the N.R.A. “The real risk with lies under oath, if they can be shown, is that a jury or judge will conclude that the person who lied had something additional to hide and knew it. What they said will then become evidence against them,” Gillers explained. “If LaPierre knowingly gave false testimony, it would be added ammunition for the A.G.’s effort to dissolve the N.R.A.”
The organization has disputed many of the attorney general’s allegations, and asserted counterclaims against James for allegedly breaching its constitutional rights. The nonprofit maintains that it is committed to “good governance,” and in recent tax filings revealed that LaPierre has repaid most of the travel expenses that the N.R.A. has so far deemed improper and intends to reimburse the rest. In October, its board elected LaPierre to his thirty-first one-year term as C.E.O. “The N.R.A. understands that Mr. LaPierre answered truthfully about his travel to and use of the yacht,” William A. Brewer III, the lawyer who represents the organization in its legal fight with James, said. “Any suggestion to the contrary is reckless and misleading.” He added that, “in the N.R.A.’s view,” LaPierre “is honoring all of his professional obligations to the association—operating with transparency and a commitment to good governance.” In a statement provided by the N.R.A., Sterner said “I have no idea why there is a fixation on my wedding, but it feels personally harassing.”
For nearly a decade, LaPierre failed to list the free yacht trips on N.R.A. internal disclosure forms, as required by the organization’s rules and New York State law. Instead, he only did so this spring, on the same day he was scheduled to testify before a judge for the first time. According to a charity-auction brochure, a four-night cruise on the hundred-and-eight-foot yacht—which has four staterooms, a waterslide, and a hydraulic swim platform—is worth more than seventy-five thousand dollars. In a deposition, LaPierre explained that, because he viewed the yacht as a “security issue with my family, with myself,” he had not considered it “a conflict back then.”
The owner of the yacht, David McKenzie, was a close confidant of LaPierre’s and a longtime N.R.A. contractor. For twenty years, the pro-gun group paid millions of dollars to McKenzie’s production company, Associated Television International, for “Crime Strike,” a reënactment show on cable TV that featured LaPierre as the host. Between 2011 and 2020, tax filings show, the N.R.A. also paid some seventy million dollars to two fund-raising companies that are at least partly owned by McKenzie’s wife, according to corporate records that she signed. McKenzie told me that he has nothing to do with the two firms and his wife played no role in their operation. “It’s a long backstory as to how that all happened,” he said. “It was basically a passive investment, and she doesn’t have anything to do with it, either.”
Contracts obtained by The Trace and The New Yorker for one of the firms, Allegiance Creative Group, were signed by LaPierre. The first extension was signed in November, 2013, four months after Sterner’s wedding. In his testimony, LaPierre asserted that he was not involved in contract negotiations with the companies tied to McKenzie’s wife. The N.R.A. told me LaPierre never reviewed the entities’ registration documents.
LaPierre also testified that, starting about ten or twelve years ago, the N.R.A. decided that he needed to always “travel private, whether it was business or personal.” The organization’s security director, LaPierre added, “was adamant about it, based on what he was seeing in terms of the harassment and the threats.” But the N.R.A. told me that the LaPierres and the Sterners flew commercial to the Bahamas in July, 2013, and then boarded the yacht. Former N.R.A. staffers said that Sterner initially posted photographs of her wedding on Facebook and removed them within the past few years. Several months ago, the “check-ins” portion of Sterner’s Facebook page, as well as her husband’s, contained July, 2013, references to Atlantis. Those references are now gone, too. When asked why, the N.R.A. said that it “does not comment on the social-media practices of its employees.”
Sterner is like a daughter to the LaPierres, according to former N.R.A. staffers. The couple married in 1998 but never had a child of their own. Sterner comes from Susan’s side of the family. When she and her husband had a daughter, in 2014, they gave her the middle name Susan. A year later, according to the attorney general’s complaint, at Susan’s behest LaPierre hired Sterner, then in her mid-thirties, to work for the N.R.A.’s Women’s Leadership Forum. Susan was technically a volunteer, with the title of “co-chair,” but she ran the endeavor, which cultivates wealthy female donors. Every year, the W.L.F. holds expensive luncheons and retreats at some of America’s grand hotels and resorts.
Sterner received costly perks, including private jet flights, that were not available to her colleagues. In testimony, LaPierre asserted that his niece was an essential employee and that the expenses carried a legitimate business purpose. But former staffers who worked on W.L.F. events found Sterner’s role confounding. They recall that she would occasionally perform menial tasks assigned to her, such as ordering flowers, but most of the time she was simply not around.
Tyler Schropp, who oversees the N.R.A.’s fund-raising efforts involving wealthy donors, defended LaPierre’s employment of his niece. He said that Sterner is an “extraordinary and valuable employee” who manages “national events that make a positive impact on the N.R.A., its members, and its mission.” In 2015, the year Sterner was hired, she attended a W.L.F. summit at the Broadmoor, an elegant five-star resort in Colorado Springs. Sterner brought her daughter, who was then an infant, to the event as well. According to Andrew Arulanandam, an N.R.A. spokesperson, Sterner “played a leading role in producing” the affair. Yet one of the summit’s organizers told me, “I’d never met Colleen before the event started, but Susan had mentioned she’d be part of the staff. She didn’t work at headquarters, and she wasn’t on the regular planning calls or meetings that we had. Her status was never clear to me.”
Internal N.R.A. records show that Sterner was assigned a half dozen basic responsibilities, such as providing “registration support as needed” and serving as a point of contact for a trap and skeet shooting activity. Multiple people who worked the summit said that it was often difficult to locate Sterner. At one point, they said, she was unavailable because of a private photo shoot with her daughter and two photographers from Ackerman McQueen, the N.R.A.’s then public-relations firm. Arulanandam, the N.R.A. spokesperson, defended the photo shoot. “If a few personal photos were taken, that is neither improper or extravagant,” he said.
Since she was hired by the N.R.A., Sterner has lived in Nebraska, far from the nonprofit’s headquarters near Washington. Schropp, the N.R.A. fund-raising executive, said that Sterner assisted with a number of tasks such as “event planning, administrative issues, and other projects that helped facilitate the success of the W.L.F.” In August, 2016, the attorney general’s complaint says, LaPierre authorized the N.R.A. to pay for a private flight, from Dallas to Nebraska, for Sterner and her husband. The airfare cost the organization more than eleven thousand dollars. When LaPierre was questioned about it during a court hearing, he said that there were a limited number of commercial flights headed to the family’s remote corner of the state. “Our annual meeting was coming up down there. She was working on the Women’s Leadership Forum with people in Dallas and . . . it’s the advantage of the NRA to have her . . . do that work.”