Jury in NRA civil corruption trial faced complicating factors to reach liability verdict

Gun Rights

To reach a verdict in the civil corruption trial against the National Rifle Association, jurors had to wade through a 17-page worksheet and agree on 60 questions — a lengthy task that may indicate why deliberations lasted five days.

The six-member jury, which reached a verdict Friday evening, faced many complicating factors as they worked together to find that Wayne LaPierre, the NRA’s longtime leader, diverted millions of dollars away from the gun rights group to live luxuriously, while the NRA failed to properly manage its finances.

The jurors had to separately weigh the fate of each of the four defendants, including the controversial gun rights group, and address 10 multipart questions regarding violations of state nonprofit, estate and trust statutes. 

As he delivered his instructions to the jury last Friday, State Supreme Court Judge Joel Cohen said they were “effectively conducting four trials in one.”

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If jurors found the individual defendants liable, they had to recommend the amount of money that each defendant would have to repay the NRA. 

“That’s a pretty complicated formula for a jury,” said Martín Sabelli, the former president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

In the end, the jury ruled largely in favor of New York Attorney General Letitia James, who accused LaPierre and other current and former executives of flouting state laws and internal policies to enrich themselves.

Jurors determined that the NRA failed to properly run its nonprofit and its assets at any time between March 20, 2014 and May 2, 2022. 

They also found that LaPierre, and the other defendants — John Frazer, the NRA’s corporate secretary and general counsel, and Wilson “Woody” Phillips, its former treasurer and chief financial officer — all violated their statutory obligation to discharge the duties of their position in good faith. 

They said LaPierre caused $5.4 million in monetary harm to the NRA, but that he has already repaid at least $1 million of that. 

Phillips caused $2 million in monetary harm to the NRA, they found, while Frazer did not cause any monetary harm to the group.

Frazer is the only individual defendant who still works for the NRA. The jury determined that Frazer made or authorized a false statement in the NRA’s annual filings, but that there is no cause to remove him from his post. 

LaPierre served as the NRA’s CEO and executive vice president for more than 30 years before he resigned at the end of January, citing health issues.

Regardless of his resignation, the jury found there was also cause for LaPierre’s removal from the NRA.

Early signs of discord

Five out of six jurors needed to agree on each part of the verdict. Their answers were either “yes,” “no” or a dollar amount.

From the start, the jurors expressed confusion about parts of their instructions as well as frustration at the pace of their discussions. About two hours into deliberations, they sent a note to the court, saying they were “talking about things over and over” without moving on, according to the memo, which Cohen summarized out loud.

The judge instructed them to hear each other out.

The early note suggested there might have been “really profound division” among the jury, Sabelli said.

Valerie Hans, a Cornell Law School professor who specializes in jury research, had called the memo “worrisome” for the same reason.

But both experts said five or six days of deliberations on a civil case of this size is reasonable. Hans said civil juries, especially ones that are not required to be unanimous, have very low hung-jury rates.

The corruption case

There were six weeks’ worth of testimony transcripts and evidence to scrutinize.

The lawsuit was brought in 2020 by James, who accused LaPierre of misusing an excessive amount of money from the NRA’s charitable mission for his personal use of private jets, trips to the Bahamas and other luxuries, without oversight from the NRA or its executives.

The main questions the jury needed to answer were whether LaPierre, Frazer and Phillips violated their fiduciary duties, and if so, how much monetary harm the NRA sustained as a result.

But there were a slew of other issues the jury had to decide on, including whether the NRA violated state whistleblower protection policies.

Jurors found that the NRA did violate the law by failing to adopt a whistleblower policy and that eight employees suffered because of the violation.

There were multiple questions related to LaPierre’s and Phillips’ post-employment contracts and whether those contracts — as well as other expenses, including hair and makeup for LaPierre’s wife — had received proper approval.

The jury said Phillips’s contract was not properly approved but it found no evidence to suggest that LaPierre’s was not authorized. The jury found that hair and makeup expenses for LaPierre’s wife was also not properly approved.

Cohen will have the final say over remedies. As early as July, he could decide whether any of the individual defendants should be permanently barred from serving on the board of any charity in New York and whether an independent monitor should oversee the NRA’s finances.

None of the defendants has been criminally charged as part of James’ lawsuit.

James had initially set out to dissolve the NRA as part of her suit. However, Cohen dismissed that effort in 2022, saying her complaint “does not allege the type of public harm that is the legal linchpin for imposing the ‘corporate death penalty.’”

The NRA has operated as a nonprofit charitable corporation in New York since 1871. Its assets are required by law to be used in a way that serves the interests of its membership and advances its charitable mission.

In the last few years, the NRA has been considerably weaker, with less influence in the political sphere and fewer members. Membership fell to 4.2 million from nearly 6 million five years ago, The New York Times reported.

Membership dues dropped by $14 million from 2021 to 2022, according to an audit filed as part of the lawsuit.

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