In opening arguments for a much-anticipated civil corruption trial Tuesday, lawyers for the National Rifle Association vehemently denied that executives at the gun group wrongfully spent donated funds on private jet rides, fancy meals and expensive hotels.
“It is complete fiction that the NRA spends charity money on private flights and yachts,” said Sarah Rogers, an attorney representing the NRA.
New York Attorney General Letitia James first accused NRA executives of violating state charity laws in a 2020 lawsuit, saying executives mismanaged the nonprofit’s budget and concealed lavish gifts. As the trial opened Monday, a lawyer for James’s office laid out their case against the pro-gun group in an opening statement that lasted more than an hour. Tuesday, lawyers for the NRA and three of its executives responded, arguing that while the nonprofit and its leaders may not be perfect, they acted in good faith.
The trial, which is expected to last about six weeks, is a major resume-building case for an attorney general who has vowed to take on the firearms industry. It could have a lasting impact on one of the nation’s loudest advocacy groups for Second Amendment rights, as the country enters an election year and the debate between gun safety and gun access continues to take center stage.
Rogers claimed the expenses in question were all either “business-related” or paid back.
She acknowledged that some NRA employees and vendors have “betrayed” the organization’s mission over the years. But she said the NRA has fired some employees and taken other steps to protect the organization’s funds, including requiring employees to attend compliance seminars, implementing new financial reporting software and setting up an anonymous hotline for whistleblowers.
The NRA’s opening statement also sought to distance the nonprofit from the executives accused of corruption.
She called the NRA’s longtime director, Wayne LaPierre, a “visionary leader” but “not always a meticulous corporate executive.”
In his own opening statement, LaPierre’s attorney, P. Kent Correll, described LaPierre as “bookish,” “shy” and a “scholar” who was more interested in reading proposed gun legislation than reading contracts.
“That’s what he’s good at,” Correll said.
The attorney said LaPierre’s spending was in the interest of the organization. He said LaPierre’s job was to be the “face and voice of the organization” — a duty that entailed frequent trips across the country to speak with lawmakers and gun owners, appearances on TV that required him to dress up in fancy suits, and parties on yachts where he would try to convince celebrities and other powerful people to support the NRA. Correll also said LaPierre often took private flights because he “gets a lot of threats.”
LaPierre announced last week that he’ll be leaving the organization at the end of the month, citing health reasons. Throughout opening statements, he sat in the front row of the gallery and looked straight ahead, his thinning white hair combed to the side and his chin held high.
The NRA was founded in New York in 1871 as a nonprofit dedicated largely to promoting gun safety and marksmanship. The organization’s footprint has evolved and expanded over the years as the debate around the Second Amendment has played an ever-growing role in American politics, making the NRA the leading advocate for gun rights in the U.S.
But as the organization has grown, it has also faced intense scrutiny.
The Attorney General’s lawsuit sought to dissolve the NRA altogether for allegedly violating New York’s charity law. While a judge denied that request, James’s office is still hoping the civil trial will yield consequences for the organization and its executives accused of wrongdoing.