After a sweeping 18-month investigation, New York State asked a state court on Thursday to dissolve the National Rifle Association and distribute its assets to charity. State Attorney General Letitia James’ lawsuit accused four present or former leaders of the nation’s leading gun rights organization of decades of funneling “millions into their own pockets.” It seeks a court order to require them to pay it all back and to bar them from holding office in any other charity group.
The lawsuit was filed in a New York state court, spelling out its claims in a 169-page document. (The court is named the Supreme Court, but is a basic trial-level court, not the state’s highest tribunal.) Because of the breadth of the challenges, the case could take years to move through the courts. The claims were based on state laws that govern the operations of charitable organizations. The NRA is a non-profit charity operating under New York law since 1871.
The NRA replied to the lawsuit by filing its own lawsuit against James in federal court, claiming that her challenge violated the organization’s First Amendment rights. In a statement, it also claimed that the case was politically motivated. President Trump denounced the New York lawsuit, and suggested that the NRA should move to Texas where, he said, it would be left alone.
The NRA is the nation’s leading organization for gun owners and gun rights activists, and is considered to have unusual lobbying power in Congress, repeatedly demonstrating that power by blocking new gun control legislation or gaining provisions that protect gun rights. It also has been active for decades in court cases seeking to broaden the Second Amendment right to have guns — an effort that succeeded in a major constitutional ruling by the Supreme Court in 2008, giving individuals for the first time a personal right to have a gun.
Among the Association’s most significant successes in Congress was passage in 2005 of a law to insulate gun manufacturing companies from being sued when the guns they made have been used during crimes resulting in death or injuries. That law is under challenge in Connecticut state courts in a case filed against Remington Arms by parents or family members of the 20 children and six teachers or school aides killed in December 2012 by a gunman armed with a Bushmaster assault rifle, made by Remington. The NRA has been taking part in that case to help defend the immunity granted by the law. The Supreme Court refused to halt that case last November, without giving any reasons.
The new lawsuit in New York not only names the NRA itself, but also levels multiple accusations against Wayne LaPierre, the organization’s long-time executive vice-president, general counsel John Frazer and former high-ranking NRA officers Wilson Phillips and Joshua Powell.
Under New York state law, charities operating in the state are required to use their assets to serve their members’ interest and the organization’s charitable cause. The organization’s leaders have been immersed in turmoil and accusations of scandal for months, focusing heavily on alleged misuse of internal funds for the personal benefit of the top executives. New York’s lawsuit focuses on that turmoil as the basis for 18 separate claims of illegal activity under state law.
If those are proven, the lawsuit asked the state court to take these steps:
- Dissolve the NRA completely and distribute whatever assets remain to other charitable causes.
- Declare that the organization’s leaders have engaged in fraud and “looted or wasted” its funds and ran the NRA for their personal benefit.
- Remove LaPierre and Frazer from their current posts, and bar them, along with the two former officers, from being named as officers of any charity operating inside New York State.
- Require all four of the men to pay full restitution for “waste and abuse,” void any transactions they had made for their own benefit or the benefit of their families or friends, and bar them from raising money for any other New York charity.
The widest demand made by the lawsuit was the complete breakup of the NRA, a kind of organization death penalty that James contended is authorized under New York’s charity laws. In a statement about the claims, James said that “the NRA’s influence has been so powerful that the organization went unchecked for decades while top executives funneled millions into their own pockets. The NRA is fraught with fraud and abuse.”
In remarks to news media, James said that she was referring some tax law findings to the Internal Revenue Service. While the lawsuit made no criminal charges, the attorney general said her office’s investigation was continuing, and if any criminal evidence turned up, that would be pursued.
Meanwhile, the top legal officer in Washington, D.C., filed a lawsuit against the NRA’s related foundation, claiming that money given to it to finance gun training and other legitimate activities was diverted to the personal benefit of the NRA’s top officers who controlled the foundation.