Ex-NRA chief LaPierre defends spending in graft trial testimony

Gun Rights

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Wayne LaPierre, the former chief executive of the National Rifle Association, defended his spending on travel, clothing and contracts with associates in testimony at the gun rights group’s corruption trial in Manhattan.

On LaPierre’s second day of testimony, New York state Assistant Attorney General Jonathan Conley asked him about increases in monthly fees for an NRA contract with a company owned by Hollywood producer David McKenzie, at around the time LaPierre vacationed with him in California and on a yacht in the Bahamas in 2015 and 2016.

“I don’t think they had anything to do with each other,” LaPierre testified.

LaPierre, 74, also said he flew on private jets for security reasons, and that it was not inappropriate for an advertising agency to buy him thousands of dollars in high-end clothing that he wore in television appearances.

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Though he is a defendant, LaPierre is the star witness for New York Attorney General Letitia James in her lawsuit against the lobbying group and its former longtime leader, who resigned suddenly three days before the trial began on Jan. 8.

The attorney general accused the NRA of violating state law governing nonprofits by diverting millions of dollars to fund luxuries for top officials, including travel expenses for LaPierre at several resorts.

James’ office has said NRA officials failed to obtain board approval for conflicts of interest and insider transactions, arranging no-show contracts for associates and retaliating against whistleblowers who suspected wrongdoing.

The NRA has denied wrongdoing and said it has made reforms, and has portrayed itself as a victim.

It has also accused James, a Democrat, of targeting it for political purposes and of violating the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment by trying to silence its speech.

The trial comes at a difficult time for the 153-year-old group, which has seen revenue slide 44% since 2016 and membership drop by nearly one-third since 2018.

Justice Joel Cohen of the state supreme court, New York’s trial-level court, has said the trial could last into mid-February.

LaPierre, NRA Secretary and General Counsel John Frazer, and former finance chief Wilson Phillips are the three remaining individual defendants in James’ case.

A fourth defendant, former NRA second-in-command Joshua Powell, reached a $100,000 settlement this month, and admitted he improperly used NRA assets.

Powell has been a critic of the NRA since his departure, and the group has accused James’ office of going “easy” on him.

Six jurors will decide if the other individual defendants engaged in financial misconduct and how much they should repay the NRA, as well as whether Frazer should be ousted.

LaPierre, who became the NRA’s leader in 1991, had built it into a political powerhouse that pressed Washington and statehouses to expand gun rights, even as mass shootings mounted nationwide.

LaPierre’s resignation was effective Jan. 31. The NRA cited health reasons for his resignation and said he has Lyme disease. Longtime communications chief Andrew Arulanandam was named interim chief executive.

(Reporting by Luc Cohen in New York; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

By Luc Cohen

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