The attorney general accuses gun lobby leaders of wasting millions on personal perks

ALBANY — New York state's top legal officer is trying to force the National Rifle Association to shut down, accusing longtime CEO Wayne LaPierre and other leaders of the powerful gun lobby of wasting millions of dollars on tropical trips, lavish meals and private jets.

Attorney General Letitia James filed a lawsuit Thursday in state court against the NRA, LaPierre and three other organizational leaders, laying out a wide array of alleged wrongdoing she says is enough to force the nonprofit to shut down.

James said LaPierre in particular went on multiple trips to the Bahamas and an African safari funded by the NRA or one of its vendors, with the association sometimes paying for his extended family to travel even when he wasn't there.

The NRA has been chartered in New York since the late 19th century, which grants James significant leverage over the association as she seeks to shut it down for violating state laws governing charities and nonprofits.

All told, James accused the NRA leaders of wasteful, unchecked spending that helped lead the organization to turn a $27.8 million surplus in 2015 to a $36.3 million net deficit in 2018.

At a Manhattan news conference, James said the NRA has operated as "a breeding ground for greed, abuse and brazen illegality."

“Today we send a strong and loud message: No one is above the law, not even the NRA, one of the most powerful organizations in this country," she said.

The NRA has built up a reputation as one of the nation's fiercest protectors of gun rights since its incorporation in 1871, becoming a major force in national politics and government.

The controversial organization, which boasts of more than 5 million members, has faced financial and leadership turmoil in recent years, headlined by a public power struggle between LaPierre and NRA President Oliver North that ended with North's ouster last year.

In a statement, current NRA President Carolyn Meadows called James' lawsuit a "baseless, premeditated attack" on the organization and the Second Amendment.

"It’s a transparent attempt to score political points and attack the leading voice in opposition to the leftist agenda," Meadows said. "This has been a power grab by a political opportunist — a desperate move that is part of a rank political vendetta."

The NRA filed its own suit Thursday against James, accusing her of launching a political vendetta against the organization, citing statements she made during her political campaign vowing to "take on" the NRA.

The NRA suit seeks damages from the state, accusing James of damaging the NRA's reputation and violating its First and Second Amendment rights.

James' lawsuit accuses the NRA and its leaders of a wide-array of lawbreaking and lavish spending that has jeopardized the longstanding organization's financial standing.

The NRA leaders were accused of signing off on fraudulent reports and using NRA funds to fund their lavish lifestyles.

Among the allegations laid out in the suit:

— LaPierre, NRA's chief executive and executive vice president since 1991, and his family are accused of traveling to the Bahamas on a private charter at least eight times over three years, costing the NRA $500,000. On some of those trips, an NRA vendor allowed him to use a 107-foot yacht. LaPierre and his wife also went on an all-expenses paid African safari covered by an NRA vendor, according to the suit.

— LaPierre is also accused of spending more than $3.6 million in NRA funds on black car services and travel consultants in just the last two years, as well as teeing up a post-employment contract worth more than $17 million.

— Former treasurer and CFO Wilson "Woody" Phillips is alleged to have set up a $1.8 million consulting deal for himself just before his retirement, as well as overseeing an arrangement that saw Ackerman McQueen, an advertising and PR firm, pay for NRA leaders' entertainment and travel costs before billing the organization. That arrangement is subject of a separate legal dispute.

Also named in the lawsuit are former NRA Chief of Staff Joshua Powell and current Corporate Secretary and General Counsel John Frazer.

James first launched an investigation into the NRA last year after news outlets, including The New Yorker and Trace, published investigations into the organization's leadership and precarious financial structure.

Her suit claims the organization's institutional controls and audit capabilities should have caught much of the financial mismanagement that has put the organization in peril.

James is seeking to dissolve the group and have the four NRA leaders named in the suit to pay full restitution and penalties, including their salaries earned while employees of the association. She also is seeking a court order barring the leaders from serving on any New York-based charitable boards ever again.

There is precedent for the New York Attorney General's Office to force the dissolution of a high-profile charitable group.

In June 2018, then-Attorney General Barbara Underwood filed suit against President Donald Trump and the Donald J. Trump Foundation, accusing the president and his children of breaking a number of New York oversight laws and using the charity to boost his presidential campaign.

Six months later, Underwood and the Trump Foundation agreed to a settlement that wiped out the charity's certificate of incorporation and ended its existence, with its remaining $1.8 million in assets distributed to other charities.

Asked Thursday about James' lawsuit, Trump called it "a very terrible thing" and suggested the NRA should move its incorporation to another state.

"I think the NRA should move to Texas and lead a very good and beautiful life," he said.

In her statement, Meadows said the NRA intends to fight James' dissolution attempt, setting up a legal battle that could stretch on for years.

"Our members won’t be intimidated or bullied in their defense of political and constitutional freedom," she said. "As evidenced by the lawsuit filed by the NRA today against the NY AG, we not only will not shrink from this fight – we will confront it and prevail."

James' action Thursday was a civil lawsuit. Under New York law, James would have to seek a referral to bring criminal charges against NRA leaders.

When asked whether she would seek one, James said her investigation remains ongoing.