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New York attorney general gets court’s blessing to sue NRA

A judge rejected counterclaims from the powerful gun lobby that the state's probe singles it out unfairly.

MANHATTAN (CN) — The New York attorney general’s case against the National Rifle Association is not a “witch hunt” and can proceed toward trial, a state judge ruled Friday.

“The narrative that the Attorney General’s investigation into these undeniably serious matters was nothing more than a politically motivated — and unconstitutional — witch hunt is simply not supported by the record,” Manhattan Supreme Judge Joel Cohen wrote in a 14-page decision on Friday, tossing out counterclaims that the NRA brought after New York Attorney General Letitia James accused its executives of self-dealing and corruption.

“Although certain of the Attorney General’s claims were dismissed by the Court on legal grounds, they were serious claims based on detailed allegations of wrongdoing at the highest levels of a not-for-profit organization as to which the Attorney General has legitimate oversight responsibility,” Cohen wrote. “And many legally viable claims remain.”

The NRA's counterclaims focused primarily on the timing of James' announcement that she would investigate the NRA shortly after she made public comments denouncing it.

On Friday, James applauded Cohen's ruling as an endorsement that her office has jurisdiction to investigate.

“Today, the court reaffirmed the legitimacy and viability of my office’s lawsuit against the NRA for its years of fraud, abuse, and greed,” James said in a statement Friday afternoon. “For almost two years, the NRA has tried every trick in the book to avoid culpability for their actions, only to be repeatedly rejected by the courts. Our fight for transparency and accountability will continue because no organization is above the law.”

James brought the suit in August 2020, saying NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre and other executives used the nonprofit as a “personal piggy bank” to pay for private jet rides and trips, among other expenditures.

She filed the case in Manhattan Supreme Court, where a similar lawsuit filed by her predecessor led to a $2 million settlement with the now-defunct Trump Foundation.

In its September 2021 motion to dismiss, the NRA claimed that New York’s top prosecutor was attempting to dissolve the organization and “silence the constitutionally guaranteed political speech of its 5 million members” based on the actions of five board members and two of the organization’s executives.

“If Letitia James went after the NRA because she disagreed with its political speech, that is a First Amendment violation,” Svetlana Eisenberg, of the firm Brewer, Attorneys & Counselors, argued during a remote hearing in February.

Quoting the attorney general’s promises to investigate the NRA while on the campaign trail before she was in office, the NRA claimed James brought the action against it as illegal retaliation for constitutionally protected speech.

Judge Cohen ultimately advanced only the attorney general’s fraud claims against the NRA executives. He ruled against James’ bid to dissolve the NRA, holding it would be unfair to the group’s members and possibly infringe on their free speech and assembly rights under the First Amendment.

In addition to nixing dissolution, Cohen tossed out unjust-enrichment claims and counts under the New York Prudent Management of Institutional Funds Act. At the top of is ruling Friday, Cohen emphasized that the organization is hardly out of the woods.

“The Attorney General’s allegations in this case, if proven, tell a grim story of greed, selfdealing, and lax financial oversight at the highest levels of the National Rifle Association,” the opinion states. “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, coverups, 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."

In a bid to circumvent the suit by New York regulators last year, the NRA filed for bankruptcy protection in Dallas and announcing plans to reincorporate in the Lone Star State. Four months later, a Texas judge tossed the bankruptcy case for bad faith.

The tax-exempt gun-rights group, which is headquartered in the wealthy Washington, D.C., suburb of Fairfax, Virginia, claimed in its Chapter 11 filing that it had between 200 and 999 creditors, between $100 million and $500 million in assets, and between $100 and $500 million in liabilities.

Last month the NRA held its convention in Houston, Texas, ignoring calls to cancel the ill-timed, pro-gun gathering three days after an 18-year-old massacred 19 young children and two teachers at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, about 85 miles west of San Antonio.

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