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NRA and Wayne LaPierre Found Liable for Financial Misconduct

In a sweeping rebuke of the National Rifle Association, the nation’s most prominent gun rights group, a Manhattan jury ruled on Friday that its leaders had engaged in a yearslong pattern of financial misconduct and corruption.

The jury, after a week of deliberations, found that the group’s former leader, Wayne LaPierre, had used N.R.A. funds to pay for personal expenses, including vacations, luxury flights for his relatives and yacht rides, and that two other top executives had failed in their fiduciary duties to the nonprofit organization.

The case, brought by New York’s attorney general, Letitia James, touched the uppermost echelons of the gun-rights group. In addition to Mr. LaPierre, the defendants included the group’s former treasurer, Wilson Phillips, and its general counsel, John Frazer. The N.R.A. itself was also a defendant, and found to have ignored whistle-blower complaints and submitted false filings to the state.

Once one of the most powerful lobbying groups in American politics, the N.R.A. had already suffered setbacks, defections and internal strife in recent years, all while guns continued to play an outsize role in political debates between more conservative states seeking to enhance access to them and liberal bastions, like New York, that have sought to stem the tide.

The decision in the suit brought by Ms. James was undoubtedly a low-water mark for the group. It was the second major victory for her in a week, following a judgment of at least $454 million levied against former President Donald J. Trump in a civil fraud trial.

Ms. James said late Friday that the N.R.A. verdict was a “major victory for the people of New York.”

“For years, Wayne LaPierre used charitable dollars to fund his lavish lifestyle, spending millions on luxury travel, expensive clothes, insider contracts, and other perks for himself and his family,” Ms. James said in a statement. “Today, after years of rampant corruption and self-dealing, Wayne LaPierre and the N.R.A. are finally being held accountable.”

Jurors found that Mr. LaPierre had misspent $5.4 million. He has repaid some of that sum, but must still repay $4.35 million. Mr. Phillips must repay $2 million.

The judge overseeing the case will decide in a second phase of the trial whether a monitor should be installed to monitor the N.R.A.’s administration of charitable assets, and whether Mr. LaPierre and Mr. Phillips should be barred from serving as officers or directors of any other New York nonprofits, Ms. James said in her statement.

But the group will also get some benefit from the verdict. Because it is a nonprofit, fines paid by the defendants will be returned to the organization. Still, the outcome will hardly result in a financial windfall, given that the N.R.A. has spent tens of millions of dollars a year in legal fees defending this and other cases.

Mr. LaPierre ran the organization for more than three decades, but announced just before the trial began that he would be stepping down. He was present in the courtroom as the verdict was announced.

Neither he nor any of the defendants’ lawyers had immediate comment after the verdict. Mr. LaPierre left the courthouse flanked by six court officers and a private security detail, walking quickly to his vehicle as reporters shouted questions and cameras flashed.

The six-week trial, in the courtroom of Justice Joel M. Cohen of State Supreme Court, stemmed from a lawsuit brought in 2020 by Ms. James, who had jurisdiction over the N.R.A. because it was chartered as a nonprofit group New York in 1871.

Lawyers for Ms. James, a Democrat, presented voluminous evidence at trial that Mr. LaPierre had misspent millions of dollars on an array of inappropriate expenses, some of which bordered on the bizarre, such as the use of helicopters to avoid traffic during trips to NASCAR races. Other evidence showed Mr. LaPierre seeking reimbursement for mosquito treatment and landscaping at his house.

During the trial, the N.R.A. lawyers had sought to distance the organization from Mr. LaPierre, arguing that while he had done good things for Second Amendment rights, his identity — and his admitted extravagances, including Beverly Hills shopping sprees — was not synonymous with the group’s.

“The N.R.A. is not Wayne LaPierre,” a lawyer for the group, Sarah B. Rogers, said in opening statements in January.

Mr. LaPierre testified that he had paid back hundreds of thousands of dollars to the organization, with interest — restitution that Ms. James deemed inadequate.

On Friday, anti-gun groups hailed the verdict as a long overdue reproach.

We’re two months into 2024 and the N.R.A. has already managed to lose this trial, their longtime leader and whatever political relevance it had left,” said Nick Suplina, the senior vice president for law and policy at one such group, Everytown for Gun Safety. “This verdict confirms what we’ve seen in recent elections, in state legislatures, and in the halls of Congress: the gun lobby has never been weaker.”

Shortly before the trial started in January, the group’s former executive director of general operations, Joshua L. Powell, reached a $100,000 settlement with the attorney general’s office, agreeing to admit to “misusing charitable funds” and shirking his fiduciary responsibilities.

In recent years, Mr. Powell, once the N.R.A.’s senior strategist, had turned against the group, calling for gun control and criticizing Mr. LaPierre’s leadership (though some critics found those pleas unconvincing).

Mr. LaPierre himself officially stepped down at the end of January, while still professing that his “passion for our cause burns as deeply as ever.”

On Friday evening, Kris Brown, the president of Brady, another anti-gun group, said the monetary damages confronting Mr. LaPierre were “only a drop in the bucket for what he owes the American people for the carnage he fueled.”

Danny Hakim contributed reporting.

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