For decades, Wayne LaPierre, the National Rifle Association’s longtime leader, has been a survivor. He has endured waves of palace intrigue, corruption scandals and embarrassing revelations, including leaked video that captured his inability to shoot an elephant at point-blank range while on a safari.
But now, Mr. LaPierre, 74, faces his gravest challenge, as a legal showdown with New York’s attorney general, Letitia James, goes to trial in a Manhattan courtroom. Ms. James, in a lawsuit filed amid an abrupt effort by the N.R.A. to clean up its practices, seeks to oust him from the group after reports of corruption and mismanagement.
Much has changed since Ms. James began investigating the N.R.A. four years ago. The organization, long a lobbying juggernaut, is a kind of ghost ship. After closing its media arm, NRATV, in 2019, it has largely lost its voice, and Mr. LaPierre rarely makes public pronouncements. Membership has plummeted to 4.2 million from nearly six million five years ago. Revenue is down 44 percent since 2016, according to its internal audits, and legal costs have soared to tens of millions a year.
When the N.R.A. filed for bankruptcy in Texas nearly three years ago, the step was part of a strategy to move to the state amid the New York investigation. But a Texas judge dismissed the case, saying the N.R.A. was using the filing “to address a regulatory enforcement problem, not a financial one.” Now, longtime insiders say, the organization may be reaching a point where a legitimate bankruptcy filing is necessary.
Even with the N.R.A. moribund, Mr. LaPierre’s legacy as a lobbyist, if not as a marksman, remains intact. The gun rights movement has become a bulwark of red state politics during his more than three decades at the group’s helm. In recent years, significant federal gun control measures have been a nonstarter for Republicans despite a proliferation of mass shootings.
Mr. LaPierre is among four defendants in the suit brought by Ms. James in 2020. Others include John Frazer, the N.R.A.’s former general counsel, and Wilson Phillips, a former finance chief. The fourth defendant, Joshua Powell, was the organization’s second-in-command for a time, but later turned against it and even called for universal background checks for those buying guns and so-called red flag laws that allow the police to seize firearms from people deemed dangerous.
The attorney general’s office has had settlement talks with Mr. Powell, a person with knowledge of the case said, but no deal has been announced.
The N.R.A. was founded in New York State in 1871 by Civil War veterans who wanted an organization that would help gun owners improve their marksmanship, but in the modern era it has been the face of resistance to efforts to regulate weapons.
Ms. James seeks to use her regulatory authority over nonprofit groups to impose a range of financial penalties against the defendants and to remove Mr. LaPierre; any money recovered would flow back to the N.R.A. Jury selection is scheduled to begin on Tuesday before State Supreme Court Justice Joel M. Cohen. The trial is expected to last six to eight weeks.
A parade of revelations from recent years will be front and center. Mr. LaPierre, for instance, was a regular for more than a decade at a Zegna boutique in Beverly Hills, where he spent nearly $40,000 of N.R.A. money in a single May 2004 outing. He also billed more than $250,000 for travel to, among other places, Palm Beach, Fla., Reno, Nev., the Bahamas and Italy’s Lake Como. He has argued that these were legitimate business expenses.
During his testimony in the 2021 bankruptcy case, Mr. LaPierre said he did not know Mr. Phillips had received a $360,000-a-year consulting contract after being pushed out of the N.R.A. He also said he was unaware that his personal travel agent, hired by the N.R.A., was charging a 10 percent booking fee for charter flights on top of a retainer of up to $26,000 a month. Mr. LaPierre’s close aide, Millie Hallow was even kept on after being caught diverting $40,000 in N.R.A. funds for her son’s wedding and other personal expenses.
The N.R.A. has said it is being persecuted by New York regulators. The group recently enlisted the support of the American Civil Liberties Union in a federal lawsuit that accuses former Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and his administration of misusing their authority by dissuading banks and insurers from doing business with the N.R.A. Ms. James, the group has pointed out repeatedly, vowed to investigate the N.R.A. even before she was elected.
“It’s a matter of faith among members, based on credible external evidence, that the N.R.A. was facing these adverse actions by government officials if not entirely, then in large part, because of their antipathy toward the N.R.A. and its Second Amendment advocacy,” the gun organization’s lead lawyer, William A. Brewer III, said in an interview.
He added that the organization had taken numerous steps to address its corporate practices and that the attorney general’s case relied largely on witnesses who were no longer affiliated with the N.R.A.
“This phase of the case is about tales from the crypt,” Mr. Brewer said, adding that the organization’s mentality today was that “if you made a mistake, you’re going to pay it back with interest, and if you do it again, you’re gone.”
Mr. Brewer, a Democrat, emerged as the N.R.A.’s top lawyer in 2018 after being enlisted by Mr. LaPierre to ward off New York regulators. He is viewed with extreme suspicion by the longtime N.R.A. lawyers that he supplanted, including one, J. Steven Hart, who once asked a colleague in an email: “Is Brewer a moron or a Manchurian candidate?”
Beyond Ms. James, the N.R.A.’s most formidable adversaries these days are not gun control groups, but former insiders who have been cast out of the kingdom.
Oliver North, the organization’s former president, is scheduled to be a witness. He has said Mr. Brewer’s legal bills, which exceeded $70 million over three years, “are shocking to me and many others.” Mr. North was forced out in 2020 amid a power struggle between Mr. LaPierre and Mr. Brewer on one side and the N.R.A.’s longtime advertising and public relations firm, Ackerman McQueen, which employed Mr. North, on the other.
Another former insider, Willes Lee, departed abruptly as first vice president of the N.R.A.’s board in April and was a vocal critic of the group for a time. In a Facebook post, he summed up the N.R.A.’s legal strategy as “Keep old folks who were in charge during the heinous NYAG allegations & admitted abuse. Eliminate leaders who weren’t here during the gross abuse & outrageous allegations. To the Judge, plead ‘We’ve changed’.”
With the trial approaching, tumult has continued within the organization’s leadership. Joe DeBergalis, Mr. LaPierre’s top deputy, left and was replaced by Mr. LaPierre’s longtime spokesman, Andrew Arulanandam. Phillip Journey, a former N.R.A. director turned critic who is also among the scheduled witnesses, was critical of the move.
“He’s putting malleables — what did Lenin call them, useful idiots? — in all the important spots,” he said in an interview.
Ms. James originally sought to shut the N.R.A. down entirely, as one of her predecessors succeeded in doing with the Trump Foundation, a scandal-plagued offshoot of former President Donald J. Trump’s financial empire.
That step was rejected last year by the Judge Cohen. More recently, the judge appears to have lost patience with the N.R.A., writing on Dec. 28 month that its latest motion to dismiss the case was “belated and procedurally questionable” and expressing concern that it could interfere with the trial schedule.
Legal observers think Mr. LaPierre will be hard pressed to convince the judge that he should keep his job, given the revelations that have surfaced.
“He won’t go down without a fight,” said Nick Suplina, a former senior adviser and special counsel at the attorney general’s office who works for the gun-control advocacy group Everytown.
“Given the pervasive problems at the N.R.A.,” he added, “it is hard to imagine a judge not finding fault with the head of the organization.”