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Manhattan Judge Dismisses NRA’s Countersuit Against State AG: Gun Group’s ‘Witch Hunt’ Claim ‘Is Simply Not Supported by the Record’


Wayne LaPierre, Executive Vice President and Chief Executive Officer of the NRA, arrives prior to a speech by US President Donald Trump at the National Rifle Association (NRA) Annual Meeting at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Indiana, April 26, 2019.

A Manhattan judge has dismissed the National Rifle Association’s countersuit against New York Attorney General Letitia James (D), rejecting the gun group’s accusation that it’s the victim of a political “witch hunt.”

In February, the attorney general’s office warned that advancing the NRA’s counterattack would give regulatory targets a new tool to “harry prosecutors.” Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Joel M. Cohen considered the competing arguments for months before ruling in the AG’s favor, but the blistering 14-page opinion suggests that it wasn’t a close call.

“The investigation followed reports of serious misconduct and it uncovered additional evidence that, at a bare minimum, undermines any suggestion that was a mere pretext to penalize the NRA for its constitutionally protected activities,” his decision and order states.

In March, Cohen delivered a mixed decision that allowed the attorney general’s office pursue certain claims — but took what he called the “corporate death penalty” off the table, a request to dissolve the more than 150-year-old gun group.

The judge made clear, however, that this did not mean he gave the NRA a clean bill of health.

“Although certain of the Attorney General’s claims were dismissed by the Court on legal grounds, they were serious claims based on detailed allegations of wrongdoing at the highest levels of a not-for-profit organization as to which the Attorney General has legitimate oversight responsibility,” Cohen wrote, emphasizing the NRA’s charitable status in italics. “And many legally viable claims remain. The narrative that the Attorney General’s investigation into these undeniably serious matters was nothing more than a politically motivated – and unconstitutional – witch hunt is simply not supported by the record.”

James celebrated the decision in a statement.

“Today, the court reaffirmed the legitimacy and viability of my office’s lawsuit against the NRA for its years of fraud, abuse, and greed,” she wrote. “For almost two years, the NRA has tried every trick in the book to avoid culpability for their actions, only to be repeatedly rejected by the courts. Our fight for transparency and accountability will continue because no organization is above the law.”

The AG’s legal action surrounded the group’s alleged style of governance, not the group’s direct advocacy for gun rights.

James first filed a lawsuit against the NRA and four of its current and former top executives nearly two years ago in August 2020, accusing them of mismanaging funds, failing to follow numerous state and federal laws, flouting their own bylaws and policies, and contributing to the loss of more than $64 million in just three years.

At the center of her claims is the group’s executive vice president Wayne LaPierre, who stands accused of lavish living on the donors’ dime. When he filed a failed bankruptcy petition in Texas, proceedings there unearthed evidence that he bought $300,000 in Italian suits from a Beverly Hills Zegna, relied exclusively on private air travel for himself and his family, and availed himself of other job perks like an excursion on Hollywood producer Stanton McKenzie’s 108-foot yacht, “Illusions.”

LaPierre has generally defended such expenditures — even the seafaring — as necessary for his security and responsibilities. The other defendants include general counsel John Frazer, ex-Treasurer and Chief Financial Officer Wilson “Woody” Phillips, and ex-Chief of Staff and Executive Director of General Operations Joshua Powell.

The NRA’s counsel William A. Brewer III expressed disappointment over the ruling.

“However, we understand the court’s decision that certain counterclaims were rendered moot by the NRA’s recent victory against the NYAG – when the court struck down her efforts to dissolve the Association,” Brewer added.

He also hastened to point out that the NRA will be able to use their accusations of politicking against James at any trial.

“The NRA believes the NYAG’s pursuit was fueled by her opposition to the Association and its First Amendment activities in support of the Second Amendment,” Brewer said. “There is an extraordinary public record that the NYAG, as a candidate, vowed to target the Association – chilling evidence of her motivations toward a political adversary.”

Some of James’s statements on the campaign trail before she become attorney general have come back to haunt her. She described the NRA as a “terrorist organization” and “nothing more than a criminal enterprise.”

Her current litigation against the group is a civil matter.

In July 2018, her campaign issued a press release vowed to use the “powers of the office to investigate the legitimacy of the NRA as a charitable institution,” calling it “an organ of deadly propaganda masquerading as a charity for public good.”

Judge Cohen noted that it is not enough for the NRA to establish James’s dislike for the group.

“In the end, an objectively reasonable investigation – here, one uncovering credible evidence of wrongdoing – is not rendered unconstitutional solely by the investigator’s subjective state of mind,” his ruling states.

To support that proposition, Cohen cited another case where James’s campaign trail rhetoric about an investigative target was used against her in court: the investigation into former President Donald Trump, where a separate judge also rejected claims of politically motivations.

Update—June 10 at 4:45 p.m. Eastern Time: This story has been updated to include comment by the NRA’s counsel and additional background information.

Read the ruling below:

[photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images]

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Law&Crime's managing editor Adam Klasfeld has spent more than a decade on the legal beat. Previously a reporter for Courthouse News, he has appeared as a guest on NewsNation, NBC, MSNBC, CBS's "Inside Edition," BBC, NPR, PBS, Sky News, and other networks. His reporting on the trial of Ghislaine Maxwell was featured on the Starz and Channel 4 documentary "Who Is Ghislaine Maxwell?" He is the host of Law&Crime podcast "Objections: with Adam Klasfeld."