New York Attorney General Letitia James announced a blockbuster lawsuit yesterday calling for the dissolution of the National Rifle Association. The charges follow an investigation led by her office into the NRA’s alleged financial misdealings. The lawsuit accuses NRA leaders of violating state and federal laws and diverting millions of dollars meant for the NRA’s operations into their personal coffers. Longtime NRA chief executive Wayne LaPierre is a named defendant in the lawsuit, along with three other current or former high-ranking NRA officials.
The NRA, a nonprofit organization incorporated in New York state, has been suspected of corruption for some time. In 2018, accused Russian spy Maria Butina pleaded guilty to engaging in a conspiracy against the United States. Her vector for gaining influence in Republican circles allegedly came through the NRA. In 2019, Oliver North, then the NRA president, was pushed out of the organization after losing a power struggle with LaPierre. North has alleged rampant corruption in the organization.
James has accused LaPierre of “looting” the NRA, detailing extravagant expenses: a $17 million personal retirement fund for LaPierre that he did not report to his board, private jets for his wife and niece, and trips to the Bahamas, paid for with NRA funds, to hang out on a private yacht named Illusions—which is what courts should have called LaPierre’s constitutional theories. All told, James said the actions of LaPierre and others in leadership contributed to the loss of $64 million of NRA net assets in just three years.
A potentially major breakthrough in the investigation occurred in February of this year when the NRA lost its case to prevent its former advertising agency Ackerman McQueen from releasing documents to New York’s AG.
As the top prosecutor in the state where the NRA is incorporated, James is in the best legal position to address the organization’s alleged corruption. She alone has the legal authority to sue for the dissolution of the NRA, thanks to New York state’s laws governing not-for-profit corporations. Here’s the statute, NYCL Section 1101(a)(2):
The attorney-general may bring an action for the dissolution of a corporation upon one or more of the following grounds:… That the corporation has exceeded the authority conferred upon it by law, or has violated any provision of law whereby it has forfeited its charter, or carried on, conducted or transacted its business in a persistently fraudulent or illegal manner, or by the abuse of its powers contrary to public policy of the state has become liable to be dissolved.
If I may put that into language the NRA can understand: That statute has enough firepower to take out Bambi’s mom.
James, a Democrat, was elected to her post in 2018, becoming the first Black woman to hold the top legal job in New York state. There is a world in which a Democratic attorney general who filed a lawsuit to protect the largely Republican voters defrauded by an alleged charity would be met with broad bipartisan support. There is a world in which conservatives would applaud a liberal attorney who has done the hard investigative work to back up Oliver North.
Unfortunately, we do not live in such a reasonable world; we live on a warming ring of hell. James’s announcement was met with so many baseless criticisms that I briefly thought she was another Black woman in the running to be Joe Biden’s VP pick.
Complaints came from the left, right, and center. Some nonlawyers were disappointed James didn’t show up to dog-walk Donald Trump’s adult children. Some Twitter lawyers accused her of using the law to influence the election. Liberal voices expressed fear that this would galvanize the gun-loving right, while right-wing pundits lost their ever-loving minds and accused James of trying to suppress not just the Second Amendment but also the First.
Did I mention that the NRA allegedly paid Ackerman McQueen $70 million over two years for “advertising” that was really just a front for executive travel and entertainment, as well as personal hair and makeup services for LaPierre’s wife? James is not coming for people’s guns or speech in support of guns; she’s coming for LaPierre’s slush fund.
These criticisms are bunk, but since so many people have been trained not to put “NRA” and “accountability” in the same sentence, it’s worth taking a few moments to answer the most persistent false narratives about this legal action.
James teased us with a major announcement, but it didn’t have anything to do with Trump. Boo.
Over on liberal Twitter, there was a lot of disappointment that James’s lawsuit wasn’t aimed at Trump. The New York AG’s office sent out a press release the night before the announcement, promising a “major” “national” story. The press release came only a couple of hours after Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance announced that Deutsche Bank, Trump’s lender, had been cooperating with his office for months. This, somehow, led many to believe that James had something major to unveil about ongoing investigations into Trump, Trump Inc., or the Trump family.
I am very sorry that more people don’t appreciate the distinct yet overlapping powers of a district attorney, a state attorney general, a United States Attorney, and the US attorney general. I’m not judging: Which office wields what prosecutorial power over whom in our legal system is legitimately confusing. They teach this stuff in law school because you can’t pick up this knowledge just from reading John Grisham novels.
But it’s not James’s fault that most people don’t know what she does. The only active investigation into Trump Inc. that we know about is being run out of Vance’s office. He’s looking into state crimes, not civil violations. I also have hope that there is a separate, ongoing criminal investigation into Trump-related federal crimes being led by the prosecutors in the Southern District of New York, but I don’t know that there is.
What I do know is that James’s office is looking into civil violations that take place in New York. Given what her office can do, calling for the dissolution of a powerful, 149-year-old organization—one, moreover, that has managed to change the very definition of a constitutional amendment—qualifies as major national news. This wasn’t a tease. This is huge.
It’s a political lawsuit designed to influence the upcoming election. Boo.
There were a number of lawyers with solid objective bona fides lamenting that this lawsuit was a political attack by an ambitious prosecutor who’d like to run for higher office someday. That’s a weird charge to make when you consider that every single lawsuit brought by a state attorney general can be called political in some fashion or other. Most state AGs are, after all, elected politicians. A state AG doesn’t sue a puppy mill without at least considering that voters like puppies. Remarking that an AG’s lawsuit is political is, on its face, no more insightful than remarking that a book seems to contain a lot of words.
To criticize the NRA lawsuit as politically motivated, good-faith critics need to argue that it’s somehow more political than what any AG normally does every day. And there’s just no evidence for that with this lawsuit. Some people are jumping on the fact that James called the NRA a “terrorist organization” in 2018. But she didn’t sue it for terrorism. She didn’t sue it for mass murder. She sued it for corruption. Again, rumors of massive corruption have been circling the NRA for a couple of years now.
I’m sure there are plenty of organizations James disagrees with that manage to avoid defrauding the public while advocating for their trash views.
James’s investigation was long and appears to have been thorough. People can complain about the timing of the announcement, relatively close to the general election. But the presumption is that charges are announced when they’re ready, and we’re kind of always close to one election or another. This investigation was stymied at various points by NRA delay tactics, which might have slowed the filing of charges. Moreover, we’ll never know if James might have been able to announce this lawsuit earlier, perhaps after Ackerman McQueen turned over documents, if not for an unprecedented global pandemic that rocked New York soon after the NRA’s last stalling ploy failed.
What did people want James to do? Hold the charges she was ready to file until after the election in November? Wouldn’t that involve messing with the timeline of lawsuits for political, as opposed to legal, motivations?
The James announcement isn’t an October surprise. I know that because it’s still August. I’m old enough to remember when Republican FBI chief James Comey announced that he was renewing an investigation into Hillary Clinton’s e-mails on [checks notes] October 28, 2016, 11 days before the presidential election.
If Vance perp-walks Jared Kushner on Halloween this year, we can revisit this discussion on whether Democratic prosecutors are unduly motivated by politics. Until then, spare me your thoughts on what untoward political influence looks like.
This lawsuit will hurt Democratic candidates running in purple states because white guys love the NRA. Boo.
Apparently, there are some Democrats in swing states who are worried that this lawsuit to dissolve the NRA will push gun-loving Republicans and independents back into the arms of Trump.
That’s possible, but if it happens, it will be because of a failure of Democratic messaging. I cannot say enough: This lawsuit seeks to defend NRA members from leadership that has stolen their money. James is not holding the NRA liable for the deaths of children in school shootings. The lawsuit does not seek to change the level of gun regulation in New York state or anywhere else. She’s accusing the NRA of persistent fraud. She’s accusing it of taking money people gave to the group presumably so it could fight for more guns in more places and using it to fund LaPierre’s lavish lifestyle instead.
Many NRA members might not believe that James is doing what her lawsuit says she’s doing, but shouldn’t Democrats at least try to make that argument before running for the hills? Shouldn’t Democrats at least try to explain what they stand for, instead of immediately capitulating to the Fox News characterization of their views? Convince the voters you are right; don’t criticize the Black woman for being right.
Even if the doomsayers are correct and this lawsuit irrevocably angers white gun owners who were thinking of voting for Biden, so what? I’ve explained before: Biden does not need aggrieved white guys to win this election. Barack Obama told Pennsylvania voters, to their faces, that they “cling to their guns and religion.” He lost the primary there to Hillary Clinton. He lost white people there in the general election to John McCain. But he won Pennsylvania by 10 points. I don’t know if Biden will win Pennsylvania this fall, but either way, it’s not going to have anything to do with Tish James.
The criticisms leveled at James’s office don’t make a lot of sense. She has the legal authority to bring down a nonprofit organization incorporated in her state for its suspected and much-discussed corruption. She’s done a full investigation into that nonprofit’s financial dealings—which appears to have revealed systemic fraudulence victimizing the group’s supporters. At some point, these allegations will be heard in a New York court.
I’m sending my thoughts and prayers to the NRA during these difficult times.
Clarification: An earlier version of this article stated that attorneys general are elected politicians. While that is true in most cases, seven states do not choose their AGs via popular vote but by appointment, often by the governor, or election by the state legislature. The article has been updated to reflect this fact.