The testimony of Wayne LaPierre, in the waning days of his long tenure as head of one of the nation’s most powerful lobbying groups, could highlight a New York civil trial alleging top officials used the National Rifle Association as a “personal piggy bank.”
LaPierre, who over the course of three decades became the face of the gun rights movement, stepped down Friday as NRA executive vice president and CEO, effective January 31, just days before his legal duel with New York Attorney General Leticia James. The trial begins Monday in a Manhattan courtroom, where LaPierre looked on as the jury was selected last week.
“I’ve been a card-carrying member of this organization for most of my adult life, and I will never stop supporting the NRA and its fight to defend Second Amendment freedom,” LaPierre said in the NRA’s statement announcing his resignation. “My passion for our cause burns as deeply as ever.”
The state attorney general, who filed a lawsuit in 2020 to dissolve the NRA amid allegations the organization violated laws for non-profit groups, committed tax fraud and took millions for personal use, wrote in a post on X Friday, “The end of the Wayne LaPierre era is an important victory in our case.”
“LaPierre’s resignation validates our claims against him, but it will not insulate him or the NRA from accountability,” the post continued.
On the day the NRA said the 74-year-old LaPierre cited health reasons for his resignation, James’ office said the trial will go forward, with opening statements on Monday. The trial is expected to last six to eight weeks.
LaPierre’s ‘excesses will be front and center’
The lawsuit names LaPierre, general counsel and secretary John Frazer, and former chief financial officer Wilson “Woody” Phillips.
On Friday, James announced another defendant, former NRA chief of staff and executive director of general operations Josh Powell, reached a $100,000 settlement with her office. As part of the agreement, Powell admitted to the allegations of wrongdoing.
“Joshua Powell’s admission of wrongdoing and Wayne LaPierre’s resignation confirm what we have alleged for years: the NRA and its senior leaders are financially corrupt,” James said in a statement Friday.
William A. Brewer III, an attorney representing the NRA, did not immediately respond to CNN’s request for comment about James’ claim that the LaPierre’s resignation validated the allegations of wrongdoing in her complaint. In a Saturday statement to CNN, he said it is “a telling sign that the NYAG’s case relies so heavily on disgruntled former employees, terminated vendors, and other castoffs from the NRA’s past who are no longer affiliated with the Association.
“The NRA lives in the present, and its case relies on something much more powerful: facts, evidence and a demonstrated commitment to good governance,” he added.
Brewer did not immediately respond to CNN’s request for comment about James’ claim that LaPierre’s resignation validates the allegations of wrongdoing in her complaint.
James’ lawsuit accuses the NRA of violating multiple laws, including false reporting of annual filings with the IRS and New York’s charities bureau, improperly documenting expenses, improper wage and income tax reporting and excessively paying people for work for which they were not qualified.
Many of the charges stem from the NRA’s status as a non-profit, which has strict state and federal rules governing spending.
“For nearly three decades, Wayne LaPierre has served as the chief executive officer of the NRA and has exploited the organization for his financial benefit, and the benefit of a close circle of NRA staff, board members, and vendors,” the 2020 complaint said.
The complaint accuses current and former NRA leadership of instituting “a culture of self-dealing, mismanagement, and negligent oversight” benefiting themselves, family, friends and favored vendors, leading the organization to lose more than $63 million over three years.
In a statement to CNN when the suit was filed, former NRA President Carolyn Meadows called the New York suit a “baseless premeditated attack on our organization and the Second Amendment freedoms it fights to defend. It’s a transparent attempt to score political points and attack the leading voice in opposition to the leftist agenda.”
The NRA said in a statement Friday its board “has undertaken significant efforts to perform a self-evaluation, recommended termination of disgraced ‘insiders’ and vendors who allegedly abused the Association, and accepted reimbursement, with interest, for alleged excess benefit transactions from LaPierre, as reported in public tax filings.”
James alleges LaPierre and others spent NRA money on luxury trips, private jets, yacht excursions, African safaris and other perks, according to the lawsuit.
Despite his resignation, “LaPierre will still be the center of attention during the trial and his excesses will be front and center,” Pace University law professor James Fishman said.
James’ office claims the NRA and its leadership have for the past three years “worked to avoid taking responsibility” for financial abuse and mismanagement and “blatantly disregarded New York state and federal laws, and even internal NRA policies.”
The trial has arrived despite several attempts by the NRA to dismantle the Manhattan court case by moving it out of state or filing appeals alleging the case is politically motivated by James’ office.
The state attorney general initially attempted to completely dissolve the NRA but New York Supreme Court Justice Joel Cohen blocked the move but allowed the lawsuit to proceed, saying her office could address harm done to the NRA and its members with “less intrusive” relief.
In 2021, a federal judge dismissed the NRA’s petition for bankruptcy, saying it was filed in “bad faith” in order to avoid litigation by James’ office.
The suit asks the court to order LaPierre and other executives to make full restitution for funds from which they “unlawfully profited” and salaries they earned while employees. It also seeks to remove the defendants from NRA leadership and ensure none of them can ever serve on the board of any non-profit in New York.
For its first 100 years, the NRA was largely nonpartisan and supportive of some gun control measures.
Though institutionally hindered amid internal feuds and corruption allegations, the NRA’s strength endures within the GOP, whose leaders remain almost wholly aligned with the group’s positions.
CNN contributor Stephen Gutowski, founder and editor of TheReload.com, which focuses on gun policy and politics, said LaPierre allies remain in control of the NRA.
“Those are staunch Wayne allies, and they have been for a long time, and I don’t know that they’re going to change anything philosophically about how the organization approaches things, but it’s really hard to tell because the guy who was the guy is gone now,” he told CNN.
Fishman believes “the self-dealing culture will end as LaPierre’s acolytes will probably leave or be forced out.”
“The political culture will likely not change for a while, if at all,” he said. “To thrive, the NRA needs a renewal that is very different from the LaPierre regime.”
CNN contributor Jennifer Mascia, a founding staffer at The Trace, a site which focuses on gun violence, said she believes LaPierre would not have stepped down unless he was forced.
The NRA insisted Friday “LaPierre cited health reasons” for his departure and the organization “continues its defense” against the allegations at trial.
“Wayne LaPierre has fended off coup attempts from within the NRA in the last several years,” Mascia, said. “It would make sense for the organization to come to some agreement for him to step down, to distance itself, from what might be a guilty verdict. This is a New York jury.”
But, she added, “This is not going to be like a corporate death penalty for the NRA.”
CNN’s Artemis Moshtaghian and Emma Tucker contributed to this report.