A New York State judge ruled Thursday that the National Rifle Association is not obligated to pay the legal bills of its former president, Oliver North, who was driven from his post in April after having raised concerns about possible financial misconduct by the gun rights group.
The decision by State Supreme Court Judge Joel Cohen is a minor legal victory for the NRA. The organization, which has been rocked this year by revelations about its spending practices — many of them reported by The Trace — is locked in legal battles with its former marketing agency, Ackerman McQueen, in multiple jurisdictions. Attorneys general in New York and Washington, D.C., are also investigating the NRA for possibly violating nonprofit laws.
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North, who reportedly collected $1 million annually from Ackerman McQueen to host a documentary series on the now-shuttered NRATV, claimed that NRA bylaws indemnified him. As a result, North argued that he was due compensation for legal expenses associated with the Ackerman litigation and a U.S. Senate Finance Committee investigation of the NRA. The NRA challenged that position and offered a narrower reading of the group’s bylaws.
Cohen sided with the NRA, finding that neither state law nor the bylaws left the NRA on the hook. “The NRA could agree to pay Mr. North’s expenses,” Cohen said, “but is not required to.”
North’s attorneys declined to comment. Attorneys for the NRA referred a reporter to a spokesperson who did not immediately return a call and email.
The matter before Judge Cohen arose after a schism erupted in the spring between North and his allies at the NRA and another faction loyal to chief executive Wayne LaPierre.
In April, according to court filings, North pushed for an external audit after becoming aware of questionable payments to LaPierre and the NRA’s outside counsel, Bill Brewer, whose firm represented the group at Thursday’s hearing. According to North, this attempt to fulfill his fiduciary obligation led LaPierre to launch a retaliation campaign and oust him as NRA president. In the NRA’s telling, North was an extortionist out to topple LaPierre.
New York Attorney General Letitia James filed an action on September 30 against the NRA and Ackerman McQueen, asking state court Judge Melissa Ann Crane to order compliance with a subpoena that her office issued to Ackerman in July. The subpoena seeks details of financial arrangements between the NRA and Ackerman. According to court filings, Ackerman has expressed willingness to comply, but the NRA has warned that doing so without first giving it the right to review materials and veto disclosures violates a contract between the parties.
Crane has not ruled on the attorney general’s request. In August, Crane ruled against the NRA when it asked to be present for North’s planned deposition by attorneys from James’s office.