For nearly three decades, Wayne LaPierre has been the face of the National Rifle Association, burnishing the organization’s influence and power in Washington, taking a defiant stance against gun control advocates in the wake of mass shootings and once famously declaring, “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”
On Thursday, LaPierre’s position as CEO and executive vice president of the most dominant gun lobby in the United States became more precarious after New York Attorney General Letitia James sued him and three other high-ranking current or former NRA executives, alleging that they have undercut the nonprofit organization’s charitable mission by engaging in illegal financial conduct.
That includes diverting tens of millions of dollars for personal trips and expenditures, lucrative no-show contracts to buy people’s silence and other improper spending, according to the lawsuit.
“The NRA was serving as a personal piggy bank for four individual defendants,” James, a Democrat, said at a news conference.
LaPierre is named in the suit along with Wilson “Woody” Phillips, a former NRA treasurer and chief financial officer; Joshua Powell, a former chief of staff and executive director of general operations; and John Frazer, the corporate secretary and general counsel.
The suit says their actions contributed to the loss of more than $64 million in three years as they enriched themselves and “overrode and evaded internal controls … without regard to the NRA’s best interests.”
None of the men have been criminally charged as part of James’ lawsuit, which was filed in state Supreme Court in Manhattan after an 18-month investigation that included subpoenas and testimony. The complaint seeks to have a judge dissolve the NRA, recoup the lost assets and prohibit the defendants from serving on the boards of any nonprofit charitable organizations in New York.
While the NRA’s headquarters is in Fairfax County, Virginia, New York’s attorney general has authority to investigate the organization because it is chartered in New York. James said criminal charges could still be referred to prosecutors.
In a statement, LaPierre said the investigation is “an unconstitutional, premeditated attack aiming to dismantle and destroy the NRA.” While he didn’t address each allegation individually, he said the organization is “well governed, financially solvent, and committed to good governance.”
Phillips, Powell and Frazer didn’t immediately respond to the lawsuit, although the NRA filed a countersuit Thursday claiming that James has violated the group’s First Amendment rights. In a statement, NRA President Carolyn Meadows called James’ suit a “baseless, premeditated attack on our organization and the Second Amendment freedoms it fights to defend.”
The lawsuit lays out details of its allegation that the NRA is “fraught with fraud and abuse.”
LaPierre alleged to have had NRA pay for private jets for family
NRA records showed LaPierre using the organization to pay for private planes, including for his wife, Susan, who co-chairs the NRA’s Women’s Leadership Forum, and for other family members, according to the suit. None of the flights were necessary for security reasons, nor were they approved by the organization’s board, the suit says.
The flights’ costs amounted to millions of dollars, according to the suit, which alleges that:
In 2017, LaPierre got his niece and her daughter a nearly $27,000 private jet to fly from Dallas to Orlando, Florida.
Also in 2017, he authorized a private jet to pick up his niece’s husband in Nebraska for a Safari Club convention in Las Vegas, where her husband was needed to watch their child, and then flew him back home, at a cost of about $15,000.
And in 2019, LaPierre took a private flight with his wife from Washington, D.C., to Orlando and stopped in Nebraska to drop off his niece and his grandniece, at a cost of $78,900.
LaPierre reported to have taken at least eight private flights to and from the Bahamas
“On most of those trips, LaPierre stopped in Nebraska on each leg of the trip to pick up and drop off his niece and her family, ” according to the suit. “The NRA paid over half a million dollars for these flights.”
LaPierre said he often goes to a “celebrity retreat” in December organized by a principal stakeholder in several companies that have business relationships with the NRA.
According to the suit, LaPierre has benefited by staying on the person’s 108-foot yacht, named Illusions, which includes four staterooms, water scooters and a personal chef.
LaPierre is alleged to have failed to disclose his use of the yacht on NRA financial disclosure questionnaires that he, as an officer and ex-officio director, must submit to the NRA’s secretary every year.
The yacht is considered a “gift from an NRA contractor in excess of $250 requiring disclosure under NRA policy,” according to the suit. “It also constituted a private benefit to LaPierre in violation of NRA policy.”
In testimony shared with James, according to the suit, LaPierre said that he didn’t disclose the use of the yacht for security reasons and that he believed it was used for a legitimate business purpose.
LaPierre also testified that he believed it was NRA policy that he travel by private aircraft at all times for security reasons and that he was unaware of any restrictions on how often he could charter planes, where he could travel to and how much he could spend.
LaPierre is also alleged to have received “hundreds of thousands of dollars in gifts from another NRA vendor in the form of complimentary safaris in Africa and other world-wide locations for himself and his spouse.”
LaPierre accused of giving no-show contracts to former employees
In one example, Powell was fired as executive director of general operations in late 2016 after four years in the role.
LaPierre then had the NRA pay Powell $60,000 a month over 2017 and 2018 for “consulting services,” according to the suit, and a “final payment for consulting services” worth $240,000. He was reported to have earned $1.8 million in total under the agreement, which had a “non-disparagement clause” and a “confidentiality obligation.”
The suit says that the agreement didn’t undergo a competitive bid process, which violated an NRA purchasing policy requiring that competitive bids and pricing be solicited for goods or services valued at $5,000 or more, and that the contract “must still be reported to the Finance Committee on an annual basis.”
According to the suit, LaPierre was unsure whether Powell provided any services in exchange for the money and believed that “it was just more of a severance.” The NRA’s treasurer said, “I don’t know if that was consulting or some sort of severance or what it was,” according to the suit. “I just don’t know.”
NRA alleged to have reimbursed LaPierre for personal expenses
According to the suit, LaPierre was reimbursed for more than $1.2 million in expenses from 2013 to 2017.
The reimbursements consisted of more than $65,000 for Christmas gifts that LaPierre gave his staff, various donors and friends, including an ice cream gift basket from Graeter’s, an Ohio-based ice cream chain, the suit says.
For his inner circle, LaPierre handed out gifts from high-end retailers like Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf Goodman, which were then expensed to the NRA, the suit says. Such gifts were above the $25 limit permitted by the IRS, and reimbursement should have been reported as income, according to the suit.
LaPierre was reported to have expensed over $100,000 from 2009 to 2017 in membership fees for a golf club in the Washington, D.C., area, which he visited for both business and personal use.
In 2017, Susan LaPierre was appointed to the board of directors of the National Park Service Foundation, the official charity of America’s national parks. According to the suit, Wayne LaPierre submitted expense reports for nearly $14,000 for foundation-related trips to Alaska and Arizona for himself, his wife and his niece and for more than $150,000 for private flights to take them to foundation events.
Out-of-pocket expenses said to have been passed on to the NRA
LaPierre is accused of using “pass-through arrangements” with the NRA’s outside public relations and advertising marketing firm “to conceal private travel and trips that were largely personal in nature.”
According to the suit, LaPierre would have the firm pay for expenses, including bills for NASCAR events, country music shows and medical visits, and then bill them to the NRA.
One NRA executive is alleged to have stayed at luxury suites at hotels like the Four Seasons, the St. Regis and the Beverly Hills Hotel using the “pass-through” method.
In addition, the public relations firm billed the NRA for hair and makeup for Susan LaPierre in connection with the NRA’s annual meetings and the Women’s Leadership Forum, according to the suit. The NRA was reported to have paid one makeup artist more than $16,300 to cover Susan LaPierre for three events.