Ex-NRA chief turned gun group into ‘Wayne’s World’, prosecutors say

Gun Rights
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Ex-NRA chief turned gun group into ‘Wayne’s World’, prosecutors say

Wayne LaPierre, chief executive who resigned last week, accused of taking millions ‘for personal benefit’ in corruption scheme

Senior executives of the National Rifle Association, including Wayne LaPierre, its former chief executive who resigned last week, pilfered millions of dollars from the gun rights organization “for personal benefit” in an orchestrated scheme of corruption, a prosecutor said on Monday afternoon.

Monica Connell, New York’s assistant attorney general, made the claim during opening statements on the first day of a civil trial in Manhattan that will hear testimony that LaPierre and two other NRA leaders squandered the money on luxury travel and other perks for themselves and family members.

“The NRA allowed Wayne LaPierre and his group of insiders … to operate the NRA as ‘Wayne’s World’ for decades,” Connell told a six-member jury that was sworn in earlier in the day, referencing the 1992 comedy movie starring Mike Myers and Dana Carvey.

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“Wayne LaPierre and his friends effectively suppressed the voice of anyone who challenged his leadership.

“This case is about corruption in a charity. It’s about breaches of trust, it’s about power. People take their hard-earned money and donate it to charities they believe in. It doesn’t matter what the cause is. They should be able to trust that the hard-earned money they donate is going to advance the mission of that charity.”

The case that prosecutors say will lift the lid on years of deception and financial mismanagement at the NRA is progressing despite LaPierre’s resignation on Friday, and a pre-trial settlement by another of the four defendants, former chief of staff Joshua Powell.

In the lawsuit, Letitia James, attorney general of New York, alleges that LaPierre engaged in the “brazen illegality” of secretly using NRA coffers as a “personal piggy bank” to enrich himself and pay for private flights and vacations for family members at upmarket resorts.

At the same time, he and other leaders oversaw a toxic working environment at the organization’s Virginia headquarters for decades, stifling dissent, hiding spending that was not approved through the proper channels, and awarding excessive pay rises for loyalists to cover up the alleged pilfering or look the other way, the 168-page lawsuit said.

“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 said in a statement.

“These are important victories in our case, and we look forward to ensuring the NRA and the defendants face justice for their actions.”

LaPierre, 74, and his fellow defendants sat together on Monday in the courtroom’s front row for a trial expected to last up to six weeks. James is seeking the removal of the NRA’s general counsel and secretary, John Frazer, and financial penalties against LaPierre, Frazer and Wilson Phillips, its former treasurer.

Phillips, Connell said, signed contracts and approved payments of millions of dollars that were not approved by membership or discussed openly, in contravention of New York state law.

All three remaining defendants have denied liability, and defense opening arguments were expected to take place on Tuesday morning.

The NRA, which is registered in New York, has seen a significant drop in membership and revenue in recent years as mass shootings rose across the US and legal action was taken against it.

It reported a $36m deficit in 2018, fueled mostly by misspending, and cut back on training, education, recreational shooting and law enforcement programs.

It filed for bankruptcy in 2021, seeking to incorporate in Texas where it was founded as a non-profit charity in 1871. But a judge rejected the move as a transparent attempt to duck James’s lawsuit.

The membership decline continued, and as the decades of power of the NRA faded, even more extreme gun rights groups stepped in to fill the vacuum, with one rightwing group, Gun Owners of America, attracting 2 million members and spending $3.3m lobbying against gun control.

The state court judge Joel Cohen, who is overseeing the trial, blocked James’s request for the NRA to be wound up in March 2022, finding that she had not proven the non-profit was harmed by the alleged financial mismanagement, or was unable to serve its members to the degree it deserved a “corporate death penalty”.

But other efforts by the NRA to block the lawsuit were unsuccessful, resulting in the trial’s opening on Monday.

“While the end of the Wayne LaPierre era is an important victory in our case, our push for accountability continues,” James said in her statement last week.

“It will not insulate him or the NRA from accountability. All charities in New York state must adhere to the rule of law, and my office will not tolerate gross mismanagement or top executives funneling millions into their own pockets.”

LaPierre is expected to testify in his own defense. Other witnesses are expected to include Oliver North, who was forced out as NRA president amid a bitter leadership struggle in 2019.

Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report

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