By Tom Hamburger,
Wayne LaPierre, who positioned the National Rifle Association as an uncompromising lobbying powerhouse over the past three decades, admitted Wednesday that he did not disclose free trips he took on a luxury yacht and acknowledged that some top NRA officials were not informed in advance of his plan to seek bankruptcy protection for the group.
Under questioning on the third day of a federal bankruptcy hearing, LaPierre defended his leadership of the gun rights group and the benefits he and his family received from NRA contractors.
But his testimony undercut arguments by NRA lawyers this week that LaPierre has effectively cleaned up ethical and governance problems since 2018, when the organization was first alerted by New York state officials of possible fiscal mismanagement.
Last year, New York Attorney General Letitia James (D) sued the NRA, alleging that LaPierre and three other top officials used the group’s resources for their own personal benefit. She has sought to dissolve the organization.
In testimony Wednesday, LaPierre acknowledged — as other NRA officials had previously — that the full board and general counsel were not informed in advance of the bankruptcy plan.
And he expressed regret for not disclosing internally the free trips he accepted on a yacht owned by David McKenzie, a California film producer who is linked to firms that the attorney general’s office has alleged received tens of millions of dollars in contracts over the years from the NRA.
“I believe it was one of the mistakes I made in not listing that” on an NRA conflict of interest disclosure, LaPierre said.
He said the yacht trips were necessary for business reasons and because they provided a safe retreat from physical threats he received in the wake of mass shootings.
LaPierre acknowledged under questioning that he had not filled out the NRA conflict of interest disclosure forms for several years. He finally did so this week, according to a document submitted as part of the hearing.
Even before the 71-year-old NRA chief appeared on the stand, his actions had been at center stage from the opening moments of the hearing, which will determine whether the gun rights group is permitted to seek bankruptcy protection.
The New York attorney general’s office has argued that LaPierre improperly steered the organization toward bankruptcy as a way to avoid the far-reaching lawsuit it filed last year.
The suit prompted the NRA to announce plans to move from New York, where it has been chartered since 1871, to Texas. The organization also moved to seek bankruptcy protection, saying its finances were sound but that the action was necessary to protect itself from what officials characterized as a politically motivated investigation.
“We filed this bankruptcy to look for a fair, legal playing field where the NRA could grow and prosper . . . as opposed to what we believe had become a toxic, politicized, weaponized government in New York state,” LaPierre said in response to questions from James G. Sheehan, chief of the charities bureau in the New York attorney general’s office.
Speaking via WebEx video conference, LaPierre, wearing a dark suit and blue tie and seated in front of bookshelves, confirmed that he used the phrase “dump New York” in a news release describing the impetus for the bankruptcy filing.
Lawyers for James argued that it was the actions of NRA officials that have jeopardized the organization.
“If the NRA faces an existential crisis by the bankruptcy, it was a crisis brought on by LaPierre and his enablers and by their choices,” said Monica Connell, an assistant New York attorney general, arguing that LaPierre concealed the bankruptcy plan from the NRA board and other top officials until after the bankruptcy petition was filed in January.
The New York investigation began in 2019 as internal conflicts about the NRA’s spending burst dramatically into public view. The group’s president, Oliver North, was pushed out after he said he tried to raise alarms about the organization’s spending. His exit was followed by the NRA’s top lobbyist, Christopher W. Cox, among other officials.
Amid the turmoil, numerous allegations of lavish spending by officials inside the powerhouse gun lobby were reported by The Washington Post and other news organizations, including suits purchased by LaPierre at a Beverly Hills clothing boutique and extensive private travel, and tens of millions of dollars that flowed to the NRA’s outside attorney.
During the hearing Wednesday, LaPierre said the suits were purchased at the suggestion of the NRA’s longtime advertising firm, Ackerman McQueen, which is contesting the bankruptcy. Asked whether the suits bought by Ackerman were a gift, LaPierre responded Wednesday, saying: “No. They were work, a work wardrobe.”
The NRA acknowledged in a tax filing last year that current and former executives — including LaPierre — used the nonprofit group’s resources for personal benefit. LaPierre “corrected” the financial lapses by reimbursing the NRA, the filing said.
In addition to LaPierre, the New York attorney general’s lawsuit names Wilson “Woody” Phillips, a former NRA treasurer and chief financial officer; Joshua Powell, a former chief of staff and executive director of general operations; and John Frazer, the corporate secretary and general counsel, who spent hours on the stand Tuesday and Wednesday before LaPierre testified.
James said the action of those top executives contributed to the loss of more than $64 million over three years as they enriched themselves and “overrode and evaded internal controls . . . without regard to the NRA’s best interests,” according to the suit.
LaPierre and the other officials have denied James’s claims.
The New York attorney general and Ackerman McQueen have asked the judge to reject the organization’s bankruptcy petition, saying it was filed to avoid accountability in court.
“LaPierre’s only goal is to cling to the power,” Connell told the judge Monday. She said that LaPierre’s private travel consultant will provide testimony in coming days showing she was instructed to conceal invoices showing LaPierre’s flights to the Bahamas where he went on annual trips with his family.
While in the Bahamas, the NRA chief stayed on McKenzie’s yacht, Illusions, LaPierre acknowledged Wednesday. He also stayed as a guest of McKenzie at a Bahamas resort, where he said he was doing business with potential celebrity donors.
According to the Wall Street Journal, McKenzie is linked to Membership Marketing Partners, a major NRA vendor. The company was paid $11.5 million for fundraising services in 2019, according to an NRA tax filing.
McKenzie has been tied to other NRA vendors, including Associated Television International Inc., which produced a show called “Crime Strike” for the NRA. McKenzie did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
If the judge allows the NRA to seek bankruptcy, James’s office and Ackerman McQueen have asked the court to appoint a trustee to manage the organization, replacing LaPierre and his team.
During opening arguments in the hearing, NRA lawyer Greg Garman called LaPierre an “irreplaceable asset,” citing his fundraising abilities and defending his management.
“A trustee is in fact a death sentence,” Garman said in response to that request, because LaPierre raises $100 million annually for the 150-year-old organization.
More broadly, he argued that LaPierre has instituted more rigorous fiscal and oversight policies.
LaPierre is the group’s most prominent figure, having led the NRA’s aggressive counter-responses to efforts to seek gun control in the wake of mass shootings.
After the 2012 shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., LaPierre rejected calls for regulation, saying, “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”
His response drew criticism from Newtown families and Democrats, but produced revenue and a wave of new members for the organization. The NRA also was seen as blocking the enactment of proposed gun regulations at the time.