On February 23, a Manhattan jury found the National Rifle Association and its former CEO, Wayne LaPierre, liable in a corruption case brought by New York Attorney General Letitia James.
The verdict marked the climax of a series of events that have shaken the NRA’s foundation since The Trace exposed secrecy, self-dealing, and greed within the group almost five years ago. Below is a timeline of our coverage and some of the most significant developments in the NRA’s ongoing legal saga.
How It Started
APRIL 17, 2019
Records and internal communications obtained by Trace senior writer Mike Spies show that a small group of NRA executives, contractors, and vendors had extracted hundreds of millions of dollars from the organization for disastrous business ventures and questionable partnerships. One way they did this was by funneling expenses through a sort of middle man: Ackerman McQueen, an Oklahoma-based public relations firm on the NRA’s payroll. Spies reported, in partnership with The New Yorker, that Ackerman would cover many out-of-pocket expenses for LaPierre and other executives, then bill the gun group, which would reimburse the costs without approval or supporting documentation.
Then What Happened?
APRIL 26, 2019
After The Trace’s story publishes, the office of New York Attorney General Letitia James sends letters instructing the NRA and its affiliates to preserve financial records. Several businesses close to the NRA also receive subpoenas. The Wall Street Journal reports that LaPierre had told the group’s board that he was being extorted and pressured to resign by the organization’s president, Oliver North, over allegations of financial improprieties.
APRIL 27, 2019
With the NRA gathered in Indianapolis for its annual convention, North announces his resignation. His resignation letter cites The Trace’s reporting and claims that his efforts to probe financial malfeasance had been stamped out. A group of disillusioned members puts forward a resolution expressing “disappointment, frustration, and lack of confidence” in LaPierre and other NRA leaders.
APRIL 29, 2019
North’s resignation appears to have no impact on LaPierre. Two days later the NRA’s board re-elects him as the executive vice president. The move disappoints prominent gun rights advocates and some NRA members who had hoped the board would oust LaPierre as a step toward more sweeping reform.
But There’s Even More Suspicious Spending
MAY 7, 2019
An internal memo obtained by The Trace suggests new examples of unexplained spending, weak oversight, mismanagement, and conflicts of interest among the NRA’s senior management. The document names four executives who were receiving reimbursements related to apartments and living expenses.
JULY 30, 2019
An NRA accountant also raised ethical and billing concerns about the law firm of William A. Brewer III, whose fees totaled $24 million over one 13-month period, according to a Trace report with The New Yorker and ProPublica. In the first quarter of 2019, Brewer’s firm charged the gun group more than $97,000 a day. But that does not stop LaPierre.
AUGUST 8, 2019
The Trace and ProPublica reveal a $70,000 NRA payment used to help LaPierre purchase a 10,000-square-foot Texas mansion on the market for $6 million; ultimately the deal fell through.
Lawsuits Are Filed – and the NRA Feels Pressure
AUGUST 6, 2020
James files a lawsuit in New York seeking to dissolve the NRA, alleging widespread corruption and self-enrichment by its leaders. The 164-page complaint cites several specific arrangements first revealed by The Trace. Meanwhile, in D.C., Attorney General Karl Racine brings a lawsuit accusing the NRA of improperly siphoning millions of dollars from the NRA Foundation, an affiliated charity.
AUGUST 26, 2020
The Trace reports that revenue from NRA membership dues had plummeted to a seven-year low while the group’s legal, audit, and tax costs jumped 39 percent, from $31 million in 2018 to $43 million in 2019.
JANUARY 15, 2021
The NRA seeks bankruptcy protection in Texas. Bankruptcy experts question the move on several grounds, including whether the filing was made in good faith or was part of a strategy to escape James’s investigation.
MARCH 27, 2021
Internal documents unearthed by Trace staff writer Will Van Sant show that Brewer’s law firm had spent the latter half of 2020 developing the NRA’s plan to declare bankruptcy and reincorporate outside New York. The records raise questions about whether Brewer is protecting LaPierre at the NRA’s expense. Disclosures indicate that the NRA paid Brewer’s firm $17.5 million — more than the group spent on the 2020 presidential race.
But What About the LaPierres?
APRIL 27, 2021
The Trace and The New Yorker publish footage of the LaPierres’ botched elephant hunt. The footage shows LaPierre and his wife, Susan, hunting elephants in Botswana in 2013. LaPierre is seen failing to kill a wounded elephant with three shots from point-blank range. Another member of the hunting party had to finish the job.
MAY 11, 2021
A federal judge in Texas dismisses the NRA’s bankruptcy case, finding that the group had advanced bogus arguments while improperly seeking legal advantage over James.
JULY 29, 2021
The Trace and The New Yorker report that Susan LaPierre secretly shipped animal trophies from their Botswana safari to the United States. Work orders containing the LaPierres’ names show the couple had the front feet of elephants they hunted turned into “stools” and a “trash can.” The shipping and taxidermy work cost thousands of dollars and was paid for by an NRA contractor. In other words, the NRA’s CEO is captured, on paper, violating NRA rules, which explicitly state that gifts from contractors cannot exceed $250.
FEBRUARY 25, 2022
Invoices obtained by The Trace indicate that the NRA paid tens of thousands of dollars in production fees associated with fundraising events for Youth for Tomorrow, a Christian charity whose board was led by Susan LaPierre. The payments were never disclosed in the gun group’s tax filings, and they raise fresh concerns about self-dealing at the organization. One expert describes the payments as “theft.”
The Legal Proceedings Move Forward
MARCH 2, 2022
Judge Joel Cohen dismisses James’s bid to dissolve the NRA, ruling that the complaint did not allege the type of public harm that was “the legal lynchpin for imposing the ‘corporate death penalty.’” Cohen allows the remaining claims to move forward and states that, if proven, they “tell a grim story of greed, self-dealing, and lax financial oversight at the highest levels of the National Rifle Association.”
FEBRUARY 10, 2023
A Trace analysis of Federal Election Commission filings indicates that roughly 5,400 members contributed to the NRA’s political action committee, the NRA Political Victory Fund, in 2022. That represents a nearly 45 percent decline from the number who donated in 2018 and a more than 40 percent drop from 2020.
APRIL 6, 2023
An auditor’s report filed in James’s case states that the NRA paid $12 million to settle a lawsuit with Ackerman McQueen. The report gives a damning assessment of financial relationships between the group and various vendors and individuals. The report notes that NRA insiders had raised concerns about some of the relationships “as far back as at least the 1990s.”
JANUARY 5, 2024
The Friday before the NRA’s trial is set to begin, the group announces that LaPierre is stepping down because of health reasons related to chronic Lyme Disease. His departure marks the end of a tenure that spanned more than three decades, a period in which LaPierre transformed the NRA into a formidable political machine.
JANUARY 8, 2024
The New York trial begins. In addition to LaPierre, the defendants include NRA general counsel John Frazer, former treasurer and CFO Wilson Phillips, and the NRA itself. James alleges that the defendants spent NRA money on luxury trips, cushy insider contracts, private jet travel, and fancy suits for LaPierre. Another defendant, former NRA chief of staff Josh Powell, settled with James ahead of the trial.
JANUARY 11, 2024
A secret recording obtained by The Trace captures the NRA’s treasurer in 2009 plotting to conceal luxury expenses. Also on the tape is talk of LaPierre’s desire to avoid public disclosure of his use of private jets as well as concern about persistent spending at the Beverly Hills Hotel by a close LaPierre adviser.
February 23, 2024
The jury in New York finds the NRA and LaPierre liable, and orders the gun group’s former CEO to pay more than $4.3 million in damages. Phillips and Frazer are also found guilty.