On July 9, 2013, Colleen Sterner, the niece of the National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre, received an email from a manager in the Weddings and Special Affairs division of Atlantis, a popular family resort on Paradise Island. “It gives me great pleasure to provide you with the contract for your wedding at our incredible resort!” the email said. Sterner and her future husband, Terry, had booked the Simply Love plan, with a location upgrade for their ceremony. It would be held a week later, at a neighboring, more upscale property. The couple planned to exchange vows by the 12th-century Augustinian cloisters that had been transported to the site and completed in the 1960s.
On the day of the wedding, July 16, there was rain and lightning, and the wedding took place indoors, at Atlantis. Sterner wore a white, jewel-collared cocktail dress at a ceremony that she described in a statement as “small,” and “private.” LaPierre and his wife, Susan, were among the guests. The event was part of a trip during which the LaPierres and the Sterners cruised around the Caribbean on a luxury yacht provided by an NRA contractor for free.
In 2020, New York’s attorney general, Letitia James, sued to dissolve the NRA for a pattern of self-dealing that included LaPierre’s alleged acceptance of lavish gifts from contractors. Under questioning about the yacht trip, LaPierre did not disclose the wedding. Instead, he testified under oath that he used the boat that summer because his life was in imminent danger. He said that trip — the first of six annual summer voyages on the yacht in the Bahamas, from 2013 to 2018 — was a “security retreat” and the only way he could be safe after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. LaPierre explained that he was under “Presidential threat without Presidential security” and that the boat “was offered” as a refuge. When he finally got to the yacht, he recalled thinking, “Thank God I’m safe, nobody can get me here.”
Internal NRA documents, other records, and interviews with former staffers suggest that LaPierre repeatedly made misleading and possibly false statements under oath about the yacht and his niece. LaPierre testified that Sterner, whom he hired at the NRA, was an integral employee in the organization, but former colleagues, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, say she did little work.
Stephen Gillers, a professor at New York University School of Law, said that LaPierre’s testimony could strengthen the attorney general’s legal case against the NRA. “The real risk with lies under oath, if they can be shown, is that a jury or judge will conclude that the person who lied had something additional to hide and knew it. What they said will then become evidence against them,” Gillers explained. “If LaPierre knowingly gave false testimony, it would be added ammunition for the AG’s effort to dissolve the NRA.”
The organization has disputed many of the attorney general’s allegations, and asserted counterclaims against James for allegedly breaching its constitutional rights. The nonprofit maintains that it is committed to “good governance,” and in recent tax filings revealed that LaPierre has repaid most of the travel expenses that the NRA has so far deemed improper and intends to reimburse the rest. In October, its board elected LaPierre to his 31st one-year term as CEO. “The NRA understands that Mr. LaPierre answered truthfully about his travel to and use of the yacht,” William A. Brewer III, the lawyer who represents the organization in its legal fight with James, said. “Any suggestion to the contrary is reckless and misleading.” He added that, “in the NRA’s view,” LaPierre “is honoring all of his professional obligations to the association — operating with transparency and a commitment to good governance.” In a statement provided by the NRA, Sterner said, “I have no idea why there is a fixation on my wedding, but it feels personally harassing.”
For nearly a decade, LaPierre failed to list the free yacht trips on NRA internal disclosure forms, as required by the organization’s rules and New York State law. Instead, he only did so this spring, on the same day he was scheduled to testify before a judge for the first time. According to a charity auction brochure, a four-night cruise on the 108-foot yacht — which has four staterooms, a waterslide, and a hydraulic swim platform — is worth more than $75,000. In a deposition, LaPierre explained that, because he viewed the yacht as a “security issue with my family, with myself,” he had not considered it “a conflict back then.”
The owner of the yacht, David McKenzie, was a close confidant of LaPierre’s and a longtime NRA contractor. For 20 years, the pro-gun group paid millions of dollars to McKenzie’s production company, Associated Television International, for Crime Strike, a reenactment show on cable TV that featured LaPierre as the host. Between 2011 and 2020, tax filings show, the NRA also paid some $70 million dollars to two fundraising companies that are at least partly owned by McKenzie’s wife, according to corporate records that she signed. McKenzie told me that he has nothing to do with the two firms and his wife played no role in their operation. “It’s a long backstory as to how that all happened,” he said. “It was basically a passive investment, and she doesn’t have anything to do with it, either.”
Contracts obtained by The Trace and The New Yorker for one of the firms, Allegiance Creative Group, were signed by LaPierre. The first extension was signed in November 2013, four months after Sterner’s wedding. In his testimony, LaPierre asserted that he was not involved in contract negotiations with the companies tied to McKenzie’s wife. The NRA told me LaPierre never reviewed the entities’ registration documents.
LaPierre also testified that, starting about 10 or 12 years ago, the NRA decided that he needed to always “travel private, whether it was business or personal.” The organization’s security director, LaPierre added, “was adamant about it, based on what he was seeing in terms of the harassment and the threats.” But the NRA told me that the LaPierres and the Sterners flew commercial to the Bahamas in July 2013, and then boarded the yacht. Former NRA staffers said that Sterner initially posted photographs of her wedding on Facebook and removed them within the past few years. Several months ago, the “check-ins” portion of Sterner’s Facebook page, as well as her husband’s, contained July 2013 references to Atlantis. Those references are now gone, too. When asked why, the NRA said that it “does not comment on the social-media practices of its employees.”
Sterner is like a daughter to the LaPierres, according to former NRA staffers. The couple married in 1998 but never had a child of their own. Sterner comes from Susan’s side of the family. When she and her husband had a daughter, in 2014, they gave her the middle name Susan. A year later, according to the attorney general’s complaint, at Susan’s behest LaPierre hired Sterner, then in her mid-30s, to work for the NRA’s Women’s Leadership Forum. Susan was technically a volunteer, with the title of “co-chair,” but she ran the endeavor, which cultivates wealthy female donors. Every year, the WLF holds expensive luncheons and retreats at some of America’s grand hotels and resorts.
Sterner received costly perks, including private jet flights, that were not available to her colleagues. In testimony, LaPierre asserted that his niece was an essential employee and that the expenses carried a legitimate business purpose. But former staffers who worked on WLF events found Sterner’s role confounding. They recall that she would occasionally perform menial tasks assigned to her, such as ordering flowers, but most of the time she was simply not around.
Tyler Schropp, who oversees the NRA’s fundraising efforts involving wealthy donors, defended LaPierre’s employment of his niece. He said that Sterner is an “extraordinary and valuable employee” who manages “national events that make a positive impact on the NRA, its members, and its mission.” In 2015, the year Sterner was hired, she attended a WLF summit at the Broadmoor, an elegant five-star resort in Colorado Springs. Sterner brought her daughter, who was then an infant, to the event as well. According to Andrew Arulanandam, an NRA spokesperson, Sterner “played a leading role in producing” the affair. Yet one of the summit’s organizers told me, “I’d never met Colleen before the event started, but Susan had mentioned she’d be part of the staff. She didn’t work at headquarters, and she wasn’t on the regular planning calls or meetings that we had. Her status was never clear to me.”
Internal NRA records show that Sterner was assigned a half-dozen basic responsibilities, such as providing “registration support as needed” and serving as a point of contact for a trap and skeet shooting activity. Multiple people who worked the summit said that it was often difficult to locate Sterner. At one point, they said, she was unavailable because of a private photo shoot with her daughter and two photographers from Ackerman McQueen, the NRA’s then-public relations firm. Arulanandam, the NRA spokesperson, defended the photo shoot. “If a few personal photos were taken, that is neither improper or extravagant,” he said.
Since she was hired by the NRA, Sterner has lived in Nebraska, far from the nonprofit’s headquarters near Washington. Schropp, the NRA fundraising executive, said that Sterner assisted with a number of tasks such as “event planning, administrative issues, and other projects that helped facilitate the success of the WLF.” In August 2016, the attorney general’s complaint says, LaPierre authorized the NRA to pay for a private flight, from Dallas to Nebraska, for Sterner and her husband. The airfare cost the organization more than $11,000. When LaPierre was questioned about it during a court hearing, he said that there were a limited number of commercial flights headed to the family’s remote corner of the state. “Our annual meeting was coming up down there. She was working on the Women’s Leadership Forum with people in Dallas and . . . it’s the advantage of the NRA to have her . . . do that work.”
At the time of the flight, Sterner was also working a second job, selling cars at Gateway Motors, a Chevrolet dealership in Broken Bow, Nebraska. On Facebook that month, she posted an ad for a black Jeep Grand Cherokee with four-wheel drive. Former WLF staffers told me that, for the other full-time employees, holding down a second job would have been logistically impossible. Arulanandam defended Sterner, saying that she “has always been in full compliance with our HR policies” and that there is “no policy that prevents NRA employees at Ms. Sterner’s level from pursuing vocational interests outside of the Association with approval.”
In January 2017, a small WLF contingent, including Susan, attended the annual convention of Safari Club International, a hunting-advocacy group, in Las Vegas. Susan and her colleagues socialized with donors and solicited items for forthcoming auctions. Wayne LaPierre, the complaint says, “authorized a private jet to pick up” Sterner’s husband in Nebraska and fly him to Vegas. When asked about the travel arrangement, LaPierre testified that his niece was busy “working the entire time,” dealing with donors, and that someone was needed to “help babysit” their daughter “because there was nobody else to do it.”
The former staffers expressed astonishment to me at LaPierre’s claims under oath. “Colleen was not involved in the planning of, or participation in, any event or donor visits,” one said. “If she and her husband were there, neither of them had a hand in helping coordinate donor activities, events, or soliciting items for the annual auction.” The person added: “There were corporate relations individuals who needed to be at events during show season and had children at home. They were never offered any enhanced accommodation, let alone traveling by private jet with their spouse and child.” A second person said that “there was absolutely no indication” Sterner worked at the Las Vegas gathering. She could not be found on the convention floor or at parties, dinners, receptions, or strategy breakfasts hosted by Susan. At one point, the WLF sponsored a private luncheon for about a dozen wealthy female hunters who, based on their accomplishments, were called the Dianas, after the Roman goddess of hunting. The event, in the penthouse of the Four Seasons, was hosted by Susan. Sterner was not there, either, people with knowledge of the gathering told me.
Arulanandam, the NRA spokesperson, said that there was a simple explanation. “It is common practice at the NRA — and, indeed, other organizations — that not every employee attends events and social functions as registrants or special guests,” he stated. “Some employees work behind the scenes while others work the show floor. It is clear that whoever is pushing this narrative doesn’t appreciate the ‘invisible hands’ that often make these events successful.”
After the convention, LaPierre had the NRA pay $15,000 for the husband’s return flight to Nebraska. Two days later, the complaint says, the executive approved a separate private jet trip to Nebraska, to fly his niece home.
LaPierre testified that the trips with his wife and niece aided the organization. “Any time I get the two of them together anywhere, there is a benefit for the NRA,” LaPierre said. “I mean, did they enjoy being there, yeah. I mean, on the other hand, did [the] NRA get a benefit out of them being together, yes, absolutely.” People who worked on WLF events questioned the veracity of LaPierre’s claim. One said, “No staffers knew there was any WLF planning in the Bahamas.” Another added that, if anything had been planned in the Bahamas, “it was not shared” with the WLF team. According to the NRA, “Those whose functions required their involvement were fully aware.” Susan recently stepped down from her position as co-chair of the WLF. Sterner continues to work for the NRA.