ALBANY, N.Y. – The leaders of the powerful National Rifle Association were accused Thursday of participating in massive fraud that skimmed at least $64 million from the gun rights group to finance lavish lifestyles featuring private jet travel to exclusive resorts, according to a lawsuit brought by New York Attorney General Letitia James seeking to shutter the organization.
The civil action, which names longtime NRA chief Wayne LaPierre and three other executives, details an array of alleged wrongdoing that severely weakened the organization.
“The NRA’s influence has been so powerful that the organization went unchecked for decades while top executives funneled millions into their own pockets,” James said. "The NRA is fraught with fraud and abuse, which is why, today, we seek to dissolve the NRA, because no organization is above the law.”
The NRA has been chartered in New York since the late 19th century, which grants James significant leverage over the association as she seeks to shut it down for violating state laws governing charities and nonprofit groups.
James accused the NRA leaders of wasteful, unchecked spending that helped turn a $27.8 million surplus in 2015 to a $36.3 million net deficit in 2018.
The NRA has built a reputation as one of the nation's fiercest gun rights advocates since its incorporation in 1871, becoming a major force in national politics and government.
The controversial organization, which boasts more than 5 million members, has faced financial and leadership turmoil, headlined by a public power struggle between LaPierre and NRA President Oliver North that ended with North's ouster last year.
Private trips to the Bahamas
James' lawsuit accuses the NRA and its leaders of lawbreaking and lavish spending that jeopardized the organization's financial standing.
Among the allegations laid out in the suit:
LaPierre, NRA's chief executive and executive vice president since 1991, and his family are accused of traveling to the Bahamas on a private charter at least eight times over three years, costing the NRA $500,000. On some of those trips, an NRA vendor allowed him to use a 107-foot yacht.
LaPierre is accused of spending more than $3.6 million in NRA funds on car services and travel consultants in the past two years, as well as teeing up a post-employment contract worth more than $17 million.
Former treasurer and CFO Wilson "Woody" Phillips is allegedly set up a $1.8 million consulting deal for himself just before his retirement and oversaw an arrangement in which Ackerman McQueen, an advertising and PR firm, paid for NRA leaders' entertainment and travel costs before billing the organization. That arrangement is the subject of a separate legal dispute.
Also named in the lawsuit are former NRA chief of staff Joshua Powell and current Corporate Secretary and General Counsel John Frazer.
James launched an investigation into the NRA last year after The New Yorker and Trace published investigations into the organization's leadership and precarious financial structure.
Her suit claims the organization's institutional controls and audit capabilities should have caught much of the financial mismanagement that put the organization in peril.
James seeks to dissolve the group and have the four NRA leaders pay full restitution and penalties, including their salaries earned while employees of the association. She also seeks a court order barring the leaders from serving on any New York-based charitable boards.
There is precedent for the New York Attorney General's Office to force the dissolution of a high-profile charitable group.
In June 2018, then-Attorney General Barbara Underwood filed suit against President Donald Trump and the Donald J. Trump Foundation, accusing the president and his children of breaking New York oversight laws and using the charity to boost his presidential campaign.
Six months later, Underwood and the Trump Foundation agreed to a settlement that wiped out the charity's certificate of incorporation and ended its existence. Its $1.8 million in assets was distributed to other charities.
Jon Campbell is a New York state government reporter for the USA TODAY Network. He can be reached at JCAMPBELL1@Gannett.com or on Twitter at @JonCampbellGAN.
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This article originally appeared on New York State Team: NRA faces lawsuit, shutdown attempt by NY attorney general