The National Rifle Association is the “victim of betrayal,” an attorney said Tuesday as she sought to distinguish longtime leader Wayne LaPierre from the gun rights group during opening arguments in the civil trial against it and its executives.
“The NRA is not this man,” Sarah Rogers said, adding that LaPierre has been a “valuable and visionary leader” of the organization but was “not always a meticulous corporate executive.”
She admitted to the Manhattan jury that “some past violations” by “numerous wrongdoers” were concealed from and unapproved by the NRA board, but that the organization was not “willfully blind to red flags.”
“The only question, or at least one question, is why the NRA, the victim of that betrayal, is a defendant in this case,” the attorney said.
LaPierre, as well as other current and former NRA leaders and the organization as a whole, are fending off a lawsuit brought by New York Attorney General Letitia James in 2020 that alleges they violated nonprofit laws and misused millions of dollars of the organization's funds for personal use.
In the plaintiffs’ opening arguments Monday, attorney Monica Connell said LaPierre drew millions of dollars away from the NRA to spend on “lavish perks” for himself, including personal use of private jets, expensive meals, travel consultants, private security and trips to the Bahamas for him and his family.
LaPierre, 74, has led the NRA for more than 30 years as the organization’s executive vice president. He announced Friday that he would resign from the group at the end of the month.
The other defendants, including the NRA itself, violated nonprofit laws and internal policies as they enriched themselves, the lawsuit alleges, saying it contributed to the NRA’s loss of more than $64 million in three years.
They are Wilson “Woody” Phillips, a former NRA treasurer and chief financial officer, and John Frazer, corporate secretary and general counsel.
On Tuesday, an attorney for each individual defendant and a separate one for the NRA took turns addressing the 12-member jury.
LaPierre’s attorney, P. Kent Correll, urged the jurors to set aside any misconceptions that they may have about the longtime NRA chief and said the plaintiffs want to “paint him as a person that’s not him.”
Correll said LaPierre served his job “well and honorably and honestly” for decades “until his health made it impossible for him to continue.”
Phillips’ attorney, Seth Farber, said the 75-year-old never used his position to “line his own pocket” or conceal information from the NRA’s board of directors. Farber said that his client did not do his job perfectly, but that he “never intentionally did anything to harm the NRA.”
Frazer’s attorney, William Fleming, said his client has “done nothing but show up for his job,” which he said Frazer did “selflessly.”
Frazer is accused of submitting false statements. He is the only individual defendant who still works for the NRA and risks losing a job he has held for about 30 years and “every penny that he’s ever made at the NRA,” Fleming said.
“It’s been a career and a life for him,” Fleming said.
Joshua Powell, a former chief of staff and executive director of general operations, was also a defendant. But he reached a $100,000 settlement with the attorney general’s office Friday and admitted to the allegations brought forth in the lawsuit, including the misuse of NRA funds, James confirmed Saturday.
Connell accused the NRA of flouting nonprofit laws and evading oversight for decades. “This case is about corruption,” she said Monday. “It’s about breaches of trust and power.”
The NRA’s defense team rejected the vast majority of the attorney general’s claims but said Tuesday that it agrees that there were “some past violations” and failure to follow the board’s policies. Those violations were concealed from and unapproved by the NRA board, Rogers said.
Rogers said that numerous wrongdoers were fired or have left the NRA, and that LaPierre has repaid the NRA’s money “with interest.”
The attorney general’s office did not immediately comment in response to the defense's opening remarks.
The jury, sworn in Monday afternoon, is expected to hear testimony over the next six weeks from roughly 120 witnesses. Six of them will deliberate, while the others will serve as alternates.
If the jurors find the individual defendants liable, they will recommend the amount of money that each defendant would have to repay the NRA.
They would have also been tasked with recommending whether LaPierre should be ousted from the helm of the group, but LaPierre’s resignation has rendered that moot. They are still tasked with recommending whether Frazer should be removed from his position.
In a potential second phase of the trial, New York Supreme Court Judge Joel Cohen, who has the final say over monetary damages and remedies, could determine whether the 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 have been criminally charged as part of James’ lawsuit.
The trial begins after years of failed attempts by the defendants to dismiss the lawsuit, change the court venue and countersue. The NRA also filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
James 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 lawsuit also targets the NRA as a whole. The organization 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 almost 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.
The defense for each of the individual defendants and the NRA finished their opening statements shortly before 1 p.m. Tuesday.
The plaintiffs were expected to call their first witness later in the day.