The future of the country’s most prominent gun rights group hangs in the balance as a civil trial begins in Lower Manhattan this week against the National Rifle Association.
Attorney General Letitia James’s long-awaited civil corruption trial against the National Rifle Association began Monday afternoon in a Manhattan courtroom. The proceedings are expected to last six weeks.
The case stems from a lawsuit James filed against the hulking gun rights nonprofit in 2020, accusing the organization of misappropriating millions of dollars to pay its leaders’ personal expenses — including private jets, expensive meals, and family trips to the Bahamas.
The trial against the NRA comes at the start of what’s likely to be a fiercely polarized election year, with arguments over access to guns playing a central role in the American political divide. The trial will also shape the legacy of the attorney general, who has made a mission of taking on the firearms industry in her quest to curb gun violence.
An NYPD spokesperson did not immediately respond to questions about added security or expected traffic disruptions around the courthouse.
Assistant Attorney General Monica Connell said in the state’s opening arguments that executives at the NRA violated both state laws and internal policies by spending excessive amounts of money and then covering up their expenditures. She said the organization’s leaders also “breached the trust” of the donors who “took money out of their pocket” to advance the NRA’s cause.
“They should be able to trust that their hard-earned money they donated will not be used for luxury travel,” Connell said.
Connell’s opening statement detailed some of the steep price tags the NRA’s executives charged to the organization in recent years, including millions of dollars on private flights. She also told jurors about the safeguards that are supposed to prevent nonprofits in New York from mismanaging funds. The assistant attorney general argued the NRA’s leaders worked to undermine those safeguards by lying, retaliating against whistleblowers and hiring high-ranking employees who would be more loyal to corrupt executives than to the mission of the organization.
Most seats in the gallery of the third-floor courtroom in lower Manhattan were filled with observers, attorneys and reporters. As Connell delivered her opening statement, which lasted more than an hour, she clicked through a slideshow with photos of NRA executives and board members who she said facilitated the organization’s corruption scheme.
Wayne LaPierre, the longtime executive vice president of the NRA, watched quietly from the gallery.
The defense is expected to deliver its opening statement Tuesday.
Trial follows dismissal attempts, LaPierre’s resignation
Chartered in New York since 1871, the NRA was initially founded by Civil War Union Army veterans to “promote and encourage rifle shooting on a scientific basis.”
Nearly 150 years later, James filed a lawsuit seeking to dissolve the organization — which has since amassed tremendous power and influence as the voice of Second Amendment rights across the country — over the alleged conduct of its senior management.
A flurry of legal activity followed, with the NRA seeking multiple times to dismiss James’ complaint and change the court venue. In 2021, the organization filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, and attempted to re-establish itself in Texas. A year later, Supreme Court judge Joel Cohen struck down James’ attempt to dissolve the organization, but held that she had a right to move forward to prosecute the fraud charges.
Cohen struck down a final effort to delay the trial last week. James’ office is still set on recouping the lost money and barring the defendants from serving on any nonprofit board in New York in the future.
On Friday, LaPierre announced his resignation, after leading the organization as a staunch gun rights advocate for more than three decades.
LaPierre cited “health reasons” as the cause of his departure.
In a press release about LaPierre’s departure, the NRA said the board has taken “significant efforts to perform a self-evaluation,” terminating “disgraced ‘insiders’” and others who allegedly accepted the excessive transactions.
The same day, James announced that Joshua Powell, former executive director of operations and chief of staff at the NRA under LaPierre, had agreed to a $100,000 settlement with her office.
Powell was one of five defendants in the initial 2020 lawsuit. By agreeing to the settlement, he admitted to James’ accusations of wrongdoing, according to a statement from the Attorney General’s office.
“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 wrote. “These are important victories in our case, and we look forward to ensuring the NRA and the defendants face justice for their actions.”