On the third day of the National Rifle Association’s closely watched bankruptcy trial, the star witness took the virtual witness stand. Wayne LaPierre, the gun rights group’s CEO and executive vice president, has faced questions about claims by New York regulators that he used donor money as his personal “piggy bank” for globe-trotting safaris, yachting excursions and a “glam squad” for his wife.
In her first day of questioning, LaPierre conceded that he did not inform several senior NRA officials that he would file his bankruptcy petition before he did so, including a board member who would have been his successor. LaPierre also testified that he did not inform board members about the establishment of a company Sea Girt, LLC, which he formed in Texas for the purpose of filing for bankruptcy here. Described by regulators as a “shell company,” Sea Girt had assets exceeding its debts at the time.
LaPierre’s prior depositions and allegations in the New York lawsuit make the NRA chief’s ongoing testimony highly anticipated.
In a bombshell lawsuit last year, New York Attorney General Letitia James (D) accused LaPierre of inserting a “poison pill contract” to consolidate his power within the NRA and guarantee himself an income for life worth more than $17 million. LaPierre allegedly used the non-profit’s money for luxury travel, an excursion on a 108-foot yacht called Illusions, and all-expense-paid safaris around the world. The NRA justified filing for bankruptcy in Texas as an effort to avoid their court-ordered annihilation, but the trial there has spilled more of the organization’s secrets.
In late March, LaPierre took the hot seat for two days about some of the allegations leveled by James’s office. Transcripts show the NRA chief detailing trips on the yacht, which was owned by Hollywood producer Stanton McKenzie, boasted “several staterooms,” a handful of staffers, a cook onboard, and “two WaveRunners on the boat.” LaPierre admitted to taking trips of weeks at a time on the vessel in the Bahamas. Regulators said that LaPierre did not mark his gratis voyages on conflict-of-interest forms.
Asked whether the NRA chief offered to pay the McKenzies for the use of the yacht the Illusions, LaPierre conceded: “I did not.”
LaPierre testified on Wednesday that he also took a couple of trips on another yacht called the Grand Illusions, and he acknowledged that McKenzie picked up the tab on his stay at an Atlantis resort. Before the COVID-19 era, LaPierre testified, he flew out to Los Angeles to meet up with McKenzie at Beverly Hills and staying at a hotel there paid for by the producer. The NRA’s ex-longtime PR firm Ackerman McQueen picked up the tab on nearly $300,000 for LaPierre’s Italian suits at Zegna in Beverly Hills, which LaPierre defended as an expenditure the firm recommended for his television appearances.
Asked about his maiden voyage on the yacht Illusions, LaPierre replied in the March 23 deposition: “I think it was after the Sandy Hook shooting, the summer after the Sandy Hook shooting.”
LaPierre was referring to the mass shootings that killed 26 people, including 20 children, at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut on December 12, 2012. The tragedy galvanized the gun control movement and sparked ongoing litigation against major firearms manufacturers in Connecticut.
Opening statements in the NRA’s bankruptcy proceedings on Monday brought another allegation that LaPierre’s wife had a “glam squad” tending to her on NRA donors’ dime.
Originally formed in New York roughly 150 years ago, the NRA is the country’s oldest gun advocacy group, and the lawsuit threatened to shut it down and put it under receivership for violating the state’s charity law. LaPierre hoped to fend off that fate by declaring bankruptcy in Texas, where the attorney general’s office claims he set up the “wholly-owned shell company” Sea Girt LLC to establish jurisdiction for bankruptcy proceedings in the Lone Star State.
Some two weeks after his deposition, LaPierre took the hot seat again on Day Three of the bankruptcy trial in Dallas, Texas. No sooner than the attorney general’s charities bureau chief James Sheehan began his questioning, than the public learned how the NRA chief avoids a digital trail.
“Is it true you send no emails?” Sheehan asked.
“That’s correct,” LaPierre replied.
“Is it true that you send no texts?” the attorney continued.
“That’s correct,” the NRA chief answered again.
LaPierre bristled when Sheehan’s questioning turned to the all-expense-paid hunting trips for him and his wife for the TV show “Under Wild Skies,” arguing that both of them were at work projecting the NRA’s image and reaching out to new donors. That work, as he phrased it, also brought them to exotic locals like Botswana, for elephant and water buffalo hunts with airfare, professional hunters and other expenses covered.
“We were filming the television show ‘Under Wild Skies’ for NRA,” LaPierre said, defensively.
Throughout the day’s proceedings, LaPierre tried to insert justifications for expenditures which Sheehan elicit in his questions. Judge Hale repeatedly sustained motions to strike answers, and LaPierre’s lawyer reminded him that he will have the opportunity to make those remarks at a later time.
Before LaPierre testified on Wednesday, the NRA’s general counsel John Frazer withstood questioning over the course of two days. He told the New York Attorney General’s assistant Emily Stern that he did not know the group would sue their longtime public relations firm Ackerman McQueen before it happened. Stern had been trying to establish LaPierre’s control over the organization, allowing him to make an executive decision like that without his general counsel’s knowledge.
No longer an NRA ally, Ackerman McQueen joined the attorney general’s office in urging Bankruptcy Judge Harlin Hale to dismiss the petition on the grounds that it was filed in bad faith.
When filing its petition, the NRA boasted in a press release about being in its “strongest financial condition in years,” and the group openly acknowledged the plan was to “Dump New York” to avoid possible liabilities there for a more favorable regulatory climate in Texas.
On the campaign trail to becoming New York’s attorney general, James labeled the NRA as a “terrorist organization,” and the group regularly throws those words back against her to attack the suit as politically motivated. Her office describes the case as a straightforward application of New York charity law.
Earlier on Wednesday, Ackerman McQueen’s lawyer Mike Gruber pressed Frazer on the NRA’s position that the group had to file for bankruptcy in Texas because of a weaponized regulatory framework in New York. Gruber noted that the allegations are currently before state and federal judges in New York, whose fairness the NRA has not questioned.
“If the courts aren’t weaponized against the NRA, what’s the issue?” Gruber asked.
Avoiding impugning the judges, Frazer noted that litigation comes with inherent risks: “Sometimes the processes are unpredictable.”
Gruber’s questioning revealed that the Brewer law firm billed the NRA in an invoice charging $59,155.25 for the line item “Russia” in 2020. Before the charges could be fully explained, an objection on the ground of confidentiality struck the matter from the court record. Russian agent Maria Butina’s attempts to infiltrate the NRA led to a string of embarrassing headlines for the gun group, during her prosecution and eventual deportation from the United States in 2019.
Update—April 7 at 5:58 p.m.: This story has been updated to add revelations from the first day of LaPierre’s testimony, after proceedings closed for Wednesday.
(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
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