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NRA can’t assert bias defense to New York lawsuit

The arguments of political bias from the gun lobby echoed ones already rejected by the court.

MANHATTAN (CN) — Ahead of a potential fall trial on alleged financial improprieties within the National Rifle Association, a New York state judge refused Thursday to let the group claim as its defense that the lawsuit against it is politically motivated.

Attorneys for the NRA have long alleged that New York Attorney General Letitia James’ investigation into the gun organization is a retaliatory one, motivated solely by a desire to silence the group's advocacy of the Second Amendment.

After lengthy oral arguments Thursday in Manhattan Supreme Court, Justice Joel Cohen turned down a bid by the NRA to revisit counterclaims for bias that the court has already rejected. It was also Cohen who threw out nearly identical counterclaims practically a year ago to the day at the motion-to-dismiss stage.

“The trial will rest on the merits,” the judge said in court, “rather than a war of words between the NRA and the New York attorney general.”

Attorney General James applauded the ruling on Thursday afternoon. “For over two years, the NRA and its senior management have used every tool and trick to try and avoid the consequences of their bad actions,” she said in a statement. “Bringing up arguments that have already been rejected is just the latest example of how far the NRA will go to distract from the serious charges of misconduct it is facing.”

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 the group.

Steve Shiffman, assistant attorney general in the Enforcement Section of the Charities Bureau, urged Judge Cohen on Thursday to throw out the NRA’s bias defense arguments on the same grounds that he used last year.

In addition to defending the seriousness and viability of the attorney general’s claims against the NRA, Shiffman argued that James is well within her office’s jurisdiction to investigate and prosecute.

During oral arguments on Thursday morning, NRA lawyer Svetlana Eisenberg repeatedly invoked the so-called “unclean hands” doctrine,” an equitable defense that bars relief to a party who has engaged in inequitable behavior related to the subject matter of that party's claim.

“The evidence of animus is express, direct, clear, irrefutable,” she charged as an affirmative defense.

“They definitely don’t want us to present at trial evidence of these statements of animus.”

Judge Cohen criticized the NRA for basing its counterclaim on an out-of-date version of the attorney general’s lawsuit.

“There’s sort of a disconnect between the case that you’re talking about and what we have before us here,” the judge said Thursday, having denied the attorney general’s bid to dissolve the organization in March 2022. “Destroying the NRA is not part of the case.”

The remaining claims heading to trial hinge on allegations of “financial malfeasance … not dissolution,” he said.

Attorneys for the NRA promised to revive the bias claims on appeal.

“Whether the Attorney General’s political vendetta against the NRA drives this prosecution, in violation of the Constitution, is a matter for the appellate courts,” said William A. Brewer III, lead counsel to NRA. “For now, the Association looks forward to a trial on the merits, which it believes will discredit the NYAG’s public narrative.” 

Attorney General James brought the suit against the NRA and its senior management in August 2020, alleging “years of self-dealing and illegal conduct.”

The complaint accused 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.

James 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.

The NRA soon filed for bankruptcy protection in Dallas and subsequently announced plans to reincorporate in the Lone Star State — moves that might have let the group circumvent New York regulators if they worked. Ultimately, 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 up to a thousand creditors and hundreds of millions of dollars in assets and liabilities.

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Categories / Civil Rights, Government, Politics

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