Judge refuses to dismiss New York AG's lawsuit against NRA

Erin Durkin
·3 min read

NEW YORK — State Attorney General Tish James’ lawsuit seeking to dissolve the National Rifle Association can move forward, a state judge ruled Thursday.

Judge Joel Cohen denied the NRA’s motions to dismiss the case, pause it or transfer it to a different court.

The attorney general filed the suit in state court in August, seeking to put the NRA out of business, charging that its leaders misused funds and engaged in self-dealing.

The NRA argued that the case should be tossed because it belongs in federal, not state court, and that it should be heard in Albany instead of Manhattan.

The judge rejected all of those requests.

“The attorney general is the chief law enforcement of the state of New York. She is enforcing a New York state statute,” Cohen said at a virtual court hearing. “It would be inappropriate in these circumstances to find that the attorney general cannot pursue her claims in state court just because one of the defendants prefers to proceed in federal court.”

The lawsuit accuses Wayne LaPierre, the NRA’s longtime CEO, of taking lavish family vacations on the NRA’s dime — flying with his family to the Bahamas on private jets eight times in five years — using NRA money to buy Christmas gifts for an associate, and using a secret contract to guarantee himself lifetime income from the gun group.

State law gives the attorney general oversight over nonprofits registered in New York, including the ability to bring a suit to dissolve a not-for-profit corporation. The suit argues that the NRA should be dissolved because it has shown a pattern of conducting its business in a persistently fraudulent or illegal manner, violating its tax-exempt status. It says the NRA has diverted millions of dollars away from its charitable mission, in violation of laws governing nonprofits.

The financially troubled gun rights group announced last week it was “dumping New York” to reincorporate in Texas and declaring bankruptcy. “The NRA abandons a state where elected officials have weaponized the legal and regulatory powers they wield to penalize the Association and its members for purely political purposes,” the organization said in its announcement.

But the attorney general said the move should not prevent her case from going forward.

The NRA filed its own countersuit in federal court in Albany, shortly after James filed her suit, charging that its constitutional rights are being violated and calling James’ actions retaliation for exercising its rights under the first amendment. The NRA argued it would be inconvenient to have the two cases heard in separate courts in different locations.

“It’s a one-of-a-kind case,” NRA attorney Sarah Rogers said in court Thursday. “We have real constitutional claims here.”

She also argued on technical grounds that Albany, not New York City, was the proper venue for the case based on where the organization’s office was incorporated.

“The NRA is fighting for its very existence,” she said. “To the extent that there’s any ambiguity, why not let us fight for our existence in the place we chose?”

But Jonathan Conley, a lawyer for the AG’s office, said the court should be allowed to proceed in state court in Manhattan, and the judge agreed.

“The state of New York and this court have a vital interest in retaining this state enforcement action,” Conley said. “The complaint is premised entirely on New York law. ... This action implicated public interests and questions of state law that are of critical importance to this state and this court.”

“Today’s order reaffirms what we’ve known all along: the NRA does not get to dictate if and where they will answer for their actions,” James said in a statement. “We thank the court for allowing our case to move forward and look forward to holding the NRA accountable.”