Law & the Courts

New York’s Lawless NRA Lawsuit

National Rifle Association merchandise at the Iowa straw poll in Ames, Iowa, in 2011. (Daniel Acker/Reuters)

The latest bananas news from the banana republic that is the State of New York: The attorney general, a political enemy of the National Rifle Association, is seeking to have the advocacy organization legally dissolved. The pretext is financial corruption and self-dealing on the part of the NRA’s leadership.

To say that the corruption case is pretextual is not to say that it is made up out of whole cloth. The NRA, once the most effective organization of its kind, has indeed been mired in incompetent leadership and financial mismanagement for years. Its evolution from sporting club and canny Second Amendment advocate to full-service culture-war outfit has done no favors either for the organization itself or, more important, for the cause to which it purports to be committed. As much as we share the group’s commitment to the Bill of Rights, we would not be entirely surprised if actionable financial wrongdoing were uncovered.

At the same time, the effort to dissolve the NRA is nonetheless a plainly partisan political attack. The point here is not to fight nonprofit fraud but a Democratic effort to embarrass and hobble a political opponent, to burden it with expensive and cumbrous litigation, and to weaponize the power of the attorney general’s office for partisan ends.

The NRA does indeed seem to compensate its senior executes rather splendidly, and some of those expenses — Wayne LaPierre’s reported $3.6 million spent on car services and travel consultants over only two years — would raise eyebrows at most similar organizations. But nonprofit executives do not take a vow of poverty, and many of them earn sums comparable to what executives in the for-profit sector make. You may be scandalized by it, but it isn’t a crime.

For comparison: Former Planned Parenthood boss Cecile Richards enjoyed a seven-figure compensation package, and nobody can say the nation’s abortionists didn’t get their money’s worth. The heads of the teachers’ unions are very nicely compensated. Nonprofit or not, if you want Wynton Marsalis to run Jazz at Lincoln Center, it’s going to cost you upward of $2 million a year — which is a lot less than the head of the Metropolitan Museum of Art makes. The CEOs of nonprofit hospital groups sometimes earn tens of millions of dollars. Big salaries and generous expense accounts constitute neither a crime nor a civil offense — those are a matter for the boards and supporters of the NRA and other nonprofit organizations.

The specific accusations of wrongdoing against NRA honcho Wayne LaPierre are that he spent NRA funds on himself and his family, setting up a front company in order to charge personal expenses to the NRA while camouflaging that fact from the organization and from the IRS. If that were found to be the case, then LaPierre would very likely be convicted of several crimes, both state and federal. But he has not even been charged with any crime at all.

Instead, New York State Attorney General Letitia James is only working to deliver on her campaign promise to ruin the NRA legally after decades of Democrats failing to beat the organization politically. This is part of a nationwide Democratic campaign: In San Francisco, they declared the NRA a “terrorist organization”; New York Governor Andrew Cuomo attempted to use financial regulators to deprive the NRA of access to banking services and insurance, thereby ending its ability to engage in organized public advocacy; in Los Angeles, the city demanded that any NRA member doing business with the city identify himself, an attack on the First Amendment that was almost immediately shut down by a federal judge acknowledging the “overwhelming” evidence that the purpose of this was “to suppress the message of the NRA.”

If Wayne LaPierre or other NRA executives have committed a crime, then indict them and present the evidence in a criminal court. The attempt to legally dissolve the NRA instead is pure political score-settling, and an assault on the First Amendment, the rule of law, and democracy itself.

And we have seen too much of that in recent years: Consider the list of preposterous indictments from a single Democratic prosecutor’s office in Texas, which hung felony cases on Tom DeLay, Kay Bailey Hutchison, and Rick Perry — all of which were obvious hooey, and all of which ultimately were dismissed, but not before imposing ruinous expenses and extraordinary personal costs on the victims of those political prosecutions. That is what Letitia James is up to in New York.

It may be the case that Wayne LaPierre is not a fit steward of NRA members’ resources — but it certainly is the case that Letitia James is not a fit steward of the rule of law in New York.

The Editors comprise the senior editorial staff of the National Review magazine and website.

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