Wayne LaPierre, Longtime NRA Chief, Testifies at Manhattan Trial

Gun Rights

NEW YORK — With less than a week left as chief of the National Rifle Association, Wayne LaPierre got to look back at his 33-year tenure in a Manhattan courtroom Friday, when he began testifying in a civil corruption case that the New York attorney general brought against him.

LaPierre has been accused of using the nonprofit organization’s resources to bankroll an extravagant lifestyle and of presiding over a scheme to hide what he was doing.

On Friday, the attorney general’s office presented evidence showing that on one occasion, chartered flights LaPierre and his family took to a large luxury yacht, Illusions, cost the gun rights organization nearly $38,000. The yacht’s owners were David and Laura McKenzie, NRA vendors with lucrative contracts who hosted the LaPierres during many summer excursions to the Bahamas and on travel around the world.

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Asked whether he got approval from the NRA board for the Bahamas trip, LaPierre said, “No, I didn’t.”

Another NRA contractor, Ackerman McQueen, bought LaPierre’s wife, Susan, a MacBook Pro, an iPad Pro and an iPod, evidence showed. LaPierre also billed the organization for a number of pricey gifts, including a $1,260 handbag and $860 in candlesticks for the McKenzies. He charged more than $250,000 to a clothing boutique in Beverly Hills, California, over several years, and even billed the NRA $800 a year for mosquito treatment in his backyard.

LaPierre is being tried along with the NRA itself and two other co-defendants: John Frazer, the organization’s general counsel, and Wilson Phillips, a former finance chief. The case stems from a 2020 lawsuit brought by New York Attorney General Letitia James, who has jurisdiction over the NRA because it is a nonprofit organization that was founded in New York in 1871.

James is seeking financial penalties and to bar the defendants from working for the NRA or any other nonprofit that operates in the state. She already achieved one of her main goals when LaPierre, 74, announced his resignation on the eve of the trial, effective Jan. 31, citing health reasons.

His testimony has been complicated by those health issues. Last week, his lawyer, P. Kent Correll, asked that LaPierre’s testimony be limited, or even interrupted, if he was feeling unwell. A recent filing from his doctor said that LaPierre was suffering from Lyme disease and “cognitive decline with difficulty performing daily tasks” and that he had “a family history of Alzheimer’s disease.”

During his testimony Friday, the typically loquacious LaPierre kept his answers short, often to just “yes” or “no.” Twice within the first 15 minutes, Jonathan Conley, an assistant attorney general, pointed out that his testimony was contradicted by previous depositions.

LaPierre claimed to have no knowledge of the prodigious amounts that the NRA was spending on chartered private jets, some of which were used to ferry his family members even when he wasn’t present.

“I don’t know the total figures,” he said.

Conley then began to put specific receipts before LaPierre. While much of the travel has already been made public in media reports, LaPierre did not dispute the extent of the spending.

On one occasion, he authorized flying a niece, Colleen Sterner, from Dallas to her home in Nebraska, along with her daughter, at a cost of more than $11,000. On another, they were flown from Dallas to Orlando, Florida, at a cost of nearly $27,000. His niece was an NRA employee — she was hired at the urging of LaPierre’s wife, he testified — but LaPierre agreed that NRA policy required employees to typically fly coach.

LaPierre testified that he knew that the Illusions, the McKenzies’ large yacht, had four staterooms, a private chef, a jet boat and Jet Skis, and that he knew the size of its crew. The LaPierres also vacationed in India and Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, with the McKenzies, and stayed on an even larger yacht the McKenzies owned, the Grand Illusion, during European vacations, including a Greek islands cruise.

While the NRA has argued that it has been undertaking a governance reform effort, prosecutors pointed out that some of LaPierre’s spending took place after that reform effort began, and that it appeared to contradict the assertions he made in his conflict disclosure forms.

LaPierre has been sitting in the front row of the trial as the proceedings have unfolded. Opening arguments started Jan. 8 before Justice Joel M. Cohen in state Supreme Court in Manhattan, and the state’s case is expected to conclude next week.

While he was measured in his testimony, LaPierre was far more talkative about his spending practices during a 2019 interview.

“I mean, you could make me look bad and smear me with it,” he said of his clothing purchases. “But I don’t think there was anything improper about it, given the fact that I was the face of the brand.” He also blamed Ackerman McQueen, which for decades was the NRA’s advertising and public relations firm, saying it was “advising me to do it. They recommended I do it; they set up the billing.”

LaPierre’s lawyer is expected to question him Monday. In his testimony Friday, LaPierre criticized James, painting her pursuit of the organization as political. “She had been very clear during her campaign she considered the NRA a criminal terrorist organization,” he said.

LaPierre is well acquainted with most of the witnesses. After decades of attacks from gun control groups, LaPierre and his management are facing criticism in this trial from a procession of former colleagues who filled the highest ranks of the NRA. If nothing else, they establish the disarray and dissent within the organization.

Christopher Cox, his former top deputy, said he “was disgusted” after learning about the extent of LaPierre’s spending on suits at a Zegna boutique in Beverly Hills. Cox was pushed out after a falling-out with his former boss.

Another former top deputy, Joshua Powell, reached a settlement with the attorney general’s office before the trial. He said after LaPierre’s resignation that it had been “a long time coming” and was “far too late after governing over 30 years of corruption.”

During most of LaPierre’s reign, the NRA was among the most powerful lobbying groups in the United States, but in recent years its influence has waned amid James’ investigation, internal feuding and a sharp decline in membership. According to internal audits, revenue is down more than 40% since 2016, with legal costs running into the tens of millions a year.

But the organization remains a fundamental pillar of Republican politics, with conservative candidates at all levels speaking out against gun control measures, despite a steady series of mass shootings in schools, malls and other public spaces.

James has opposed the NRA and even sought to close it, but Cohen rejected that idea in 2022. The group’s enduring influence was highlighted recently when former President Donald Trump, the Republican front-runner, said he would speak at an NRA forum next month.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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