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New York’s Punishment May Not Fit the NRA’s Crime

The state has long had the gun rights group in their crosshairs, but there’s a Trumpian edge to their plan to bring them down.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

The National Rifle Association once ranked among the most powerful political organizations in America. Now it could face dissolution under a lawsuit filed by New York Attorney General Letitia James. In the 169-page complaint James released on Thursday, she describes years of financial and ethical misconduct by the group’s leaders, including Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre. “The NRA is fraught with fraud and abuse, which is why, today, we seek to dissolve the NRA, because no organization is above the law,” James said in a statement.

The move ignites an existential legal battle for the ailing gun-rights organization that will likely take years to resolve. James’s lawsuit arrives after many years of sustained internal strife within the NRA’s ranks, which pitted LaPierre and his allies against whistleblowers and dissident members who raised concerns about patterns of improper spending. The scandal has sapped the organization’s once-vaunted political strength and drained its coffers; LaPierre reportedly claimed in January that the NRA’s legal struggles had, by that time, cost the organization at least $100 million.

Gun-control groups celebrated Thursday’s announcement and the plight of their leading adversary. “Everytown has been warning regulators and the public about this corruption for years,” John Feinblatt, the president of Everytown for Gun Safety, said in a statement. “The NRA has endangered millions of lives and done unspeakable damage to our political system, and we agree with Attorney General James that dissolution and all other remedies must be on the table.” After a wave of mass shootings in 2017 and 2018, gun-control organizations began to eclipse the NRA and other gun-rights groups in political muscle and electoral success.

The lawsuit is also a victory for New York’s elected officials, who have worked tirelessly to hamstring the gun-rights group. But there’s a troubling side to the tactics they’ve deployed, tempering any satisfaction that can be drawn from Thursday’s move. As I’ve noted before, there’s a certain Trumpian flair to New York’s efforts to hound a political organization with which they disagree into submission. The alleged corruption of many of the NRA’s top leaders has long demanded some form of legal scrutiny. This fact ultimately justifies James’s investigation. At the same time, New York’s proposed sanction may be disproportionate to the offense.

Though Americans have become familiar with a certain amount of legal creativity in the Trump era, James’s power to target the NRA is fairly clear. The NRA is currently headquartered in the Northern Virginia suburbs outside Washington, D.C., but it maintains a significant legal presence within the state of New York, where it was originally chartered in 1871. James’s lawsuit notes that the NRA is legally domiciled in New York and subject to the state laws on charities and nonprofit organizations. Shortly after James’s announcement, D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine filed a lawsuit against the NRA Foundation, a theoretically independent nonprofit which funneled millions of dollars in donations to help keep the NRA solvent.

There is also a notable recent precedent for James’s actions. In June 2018, her predecessor, Barbara Underwood, filed a lawsuit to seek the dissolution of the Donald J. Trump Foundation as part of an agreement struck with the president and three of his adult children. New York investigators found that the purported charity had effectively served as a piggy bank for the president’s personal and political interests. Trump initially responded by vowing not to dissolve the foundation; the following December, he agreed to its dissolution as part of a settlement with Underwood’s office.

The NRA struck a similarly defiant note on Thursday after New York’s announcement. “This was a baseless, premeditated attack on our organization and the Second Amendment freedoms it fights to defend,” NRA President Carolyn Meadows said in a statement. “You could have set your watch by it: the investigation was going to reach its crescendo as we move into the 2020 election cycle. It’s a transparent attempt to score political points and attack the leading voice in opposition to the leftist agenda. This has been a power grab by a political opportunist—a desperate move that is part of a rank political vendetta.”

NRA lawyers also quickly filed a lawsuit in federal court on Thursday, claiming that James had violated the organization’s First Amendment rights. The NRA accused her and the “New York Democratic Party machine” of mounting a politically motivated attack to undermine and destroy it. “James’s threatened, and actual, regulatory reprisals are a blatant and malicious retaliation campaign against the NRA and its constituents based on her disagreement with the content of their speech,” the NRA claimed in its complaint. “This wrongful conduct threatens to destabilize the NRA and chill the speech of the NRA, its members, and other constituents.”

There’s a stronger case to be made, however, that the NRA’s leadership has destabilized the organization more effectively than any state official ever could. In the complaint, which draws heavily from her office’s investigation and from efforts by journalists, James describes a constant stream of unjustified cash and perks that flowed from the NRA’s coffers into the hands of favored members of its upper ranks. LaPierre, who has served as the taciturn and incendiary face of the organization for more than a decade, was the recipient and often the arbiter of this largesse. James’s complaint claims, “LaPierre routinely abused his authority as Executive Vice President of the NRA to cause the NRA to improperly incur and reimburse LaPierre for expenses that were entirely for LaPierre’s personal benefit and violated NRA policy, including private jet travel for purely personal reasons; trips to the Bahamas to vacation on a yacht owned by the principal of numerous NRA vendors; use of a travel consultant for costly black car services; gifts for favored friends and vendors; lucrative consulting contracts for ex-employees and board members; and excessive security costs.”

Over the years, LaPierre approved hundreds of thousands of dollars in NRA-funded private flights for himself, his wife, and other family members. He sought reimbursements from the NRA for tens of thousands of dollars in Christmas gifts for friends and family from swanky East Coast department stores like Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus. He spent more than $100,000 on golf club memberships in the D.C. area for “personal and business reasons.” LaPierre often cited nebulous “security concerns” to justify some of the expenses, which apparently included an armored vehicle after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, in 2018.

Others in LaPierre’s orbit also reaped the benefits of their organization’s funds. Wilson Phillips, a former NRA treasurer, drew up a contract to pay himself $30,000 a month for consulting services for the NRA after his retirement. The NRA’s current treasurer told James’s office that Phillips ultimately “never consulted for me.” An unnamed senior assistant of LaPierre routinely used the company card for inappropriate purchases, including roughly $18,000 as part of her son’s Minnesota wedding and high-end car services for herself and her family. “In August 2018, over the course of a two-week fundraising excursion in France, [she] authorized approximately $100,000 in black car expenses for two chauffeured vehicles,” the complaint claims.

Some NRA officials who caught wind of the spending sprees and other scandals soon found themselves on the outside of the organization. Foremost among them is Oliver North, who briefly served as the NRA’s president in 2018 and 2019. When North started scrutinizing some of the group’s financial practices, LaPierre allegedly demanded that he stay away, sent cease-and-desist letters, and tried to use a consulting contract that LaPierre originally helped him craft against him. North eventually warned the NRA’s executive committee of a “crisis that could affect its ability to operate as a nonprofit organization,” claiming he had a “fiduciary duty” to respond. He resigned as president shortly thereafter.

As a candidate for attorney general in 2018, James variously described the NRA as a “terrorist organization,” which it is not, and a “criminal enterprise.” (She suggested on Thursday that she may make a criminal referral over her findings to Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr.) Many Democratic elected officials are now hostile to the NRA but few of them are in a position to substantially harm the organization. Her remarks followed a similar campaign by Governor Andrew Cuomo, who allegedly quietly pressured insurance companies and other financial institutions in New York not to do business with the NRA as state regulators also took action.

In 2018, the NRA sued Cuomo in federal court over his alleged efforts to effectively blacklist it from New York’s financial infrastructure, citing First Amendment violations. The American Civil Liberties Union, which rarely finds itself on the same side as the NRA, urged the court not to dismiss the lawsuit at the initial stage. “Although public officials are free to express their opinions and may condemn viewpoints or groups they view as inimical to public welfare, they cannot abuse their regulatory authority to retaliate against disfavored advocacy organizations and to impose burdens on those organizations’ ability to conduct lawful business.”

When I wrote about the NRA’s battle with Cuomo two years ago, I expressed concern about the governor’s aggressive approach to the organization. Many who despise the NRA and its politics would likely find it abhorrent if the governors of Texas or Florida tried similar tactics against the ACLU or voting-rights organizations. James’s remarks don’t rise to the same level as Cuomo’s apparent bullying, of course. One can hardly complain of a “fishing expedition,” as the NRA did in its counter-lawsuit on Thursday, when the water is crystal clear and the fish are biting.

Should the NRA be disbanded? I wouldn’t miss it or its shameless indifference to deaths from mass shootings or its record of stoking baseless fears about race wars or its curdled try-hard machismo. A gun-rights organization that hesitates to defend Philando Castile is also no gun-rights organization at all. But I can’t bring myself to embrace the notion that a state attorney general—any state attorney general—should be able to disband one of the nation’s most popular political organizations because its leaders misused its members’ donations. If this is the opening bid in an eventual settlement that purges the NRA’s corrupt upper ranks and leaves its ultimate fate to others, however, I would welcome it.