New York Attorney Letitia James (D.) has been dealt a major setback in her corruption case against the National Rifle Association (NRA).
Justice Joel Cohen of the Supreme Court of the State of New York dismissed James’ attempt to dissolve the country’s largest gun-rights group on Wednesday. He said James’ accusations of corruption primarily involved private harm to NRA members and donors, and thus did not warrant such a sweeping penalty if proven.
“In short, the Complaint does not allege the type of public harm that is the legal linchpin for imposing the ‘corporate death penalty,’” Justice Cohen wrote in his opinion. “Moreover, dissolving the NRA could impinge, at least indirectly, on the free speech and assembly rights of its millions of members.”
The decision comes after the NRA filed several motions to dismiss Attorney General James’ corruption claims against the organization and various individual members of its executive leadership. While the judge allowed several of the claims to proceed, dismissal of the threat to dissolve the organization removes James’ most potent weapon against the group.
Attorney General James launched her lawsuit against the NRA in August of 2020 after alleging that the organization, Executive Vice-President Wayne LaPierre, former Treasurer and Chief Financial Officer (CFO) Wilson “Woody” Phillips, former Chief of Staff and the Executive Director of General Operations Joshua Powell, and Corporate Secretary and General Counsel John Frazer all engaged in illicit conduct with NRA funds.
She announced her suit with the explicit goal of prioritizing the end of the organization’s existence. While Judge Cohen shot down that goal, he noted the charges against the NRA are substantial and could still result in serious consequences for the organization and its leadership.
“The Attorney General’s allegations in this case, if proven, tell a grim story of greed, self-dealing, and lax financial oversight at the highest levels of the National Rifle Association,” he wrote. “They describe in detail a pattern of exorbitant spending and expense reimbursement for the personal benefit of senior management, along with conflicts of interest, related party transactions, cover-ups, negligence, and retaliation against dissidents and whistleblowers who dared to investigate or complain, which siphoned millions of dollars away from the NRA’s legitimate operations.”
James had a mixed reaction following the Wednesday’s court ruling. She celebrated the fact that her suit against the NRA will be allowed to continue but expressed concern at the dismissal of her preferred punishment.
“Today, the court affirmed my office’s right to pursue its long-standing claims that fraud, abuse, and greed permeate through the NRA and its senior leadership,” James said in a press release. “While we’re heartened that the judge rejected the NRA’s attempts to thwart most of the claims in our case against the NRA, we are disappointed that the judge ruled against the dissolution portion of the case.”
William A. Brewer III, the NRA’s counsel, called the ruling “a victory for not only the NRA, but all who believe in the right to free speech and association.” He said it was proof James’ prosecution is politically motivated.
“We applaud the court’s recognition that dissolution is neither appropriate nor justified,” he said in a statement. “Today’s developments underscore the simple truth that since taking office in 2019, the Attorney General has pushed a contrived narrative about the NRA in her attempt to support a dissolution claim that is improper.”
James said her office was “considering our legal options” in the wake of the ruling, and she vowed to continue taking on the NRA.
“We remain committed to enforcing New York law regardless of how powerful any individual or organization may be,” she said.
UPDATE 3-2-2022 4:50 PM EST: This piece has been updated with comment from the NRA.