MANHATTAN (CN) — The National Rifle Association cannot intercept documents related to the New York state attorney general’s investigation of its nonprofit status, a judge ruled Monday.
Ackerman McQueen, which provided advertising services to the gun-rights group for decades, received a subpoena for documents from New York Attorney General Letitia James. For months, the NRA has been fighting to see the documents before Ackerman McQueen turns them over, arguing a nondisclosure agreement allows it to review them for privilege and redact them.
“Once again, the National Rifle Association has been thwarted in its attempt to stifle and interfere with a confidential, law enforcement investigation,” James said in a statement Monday afternoon.
“The court has stopped the NRA from acting as a set of virtual eyes and ears over our investigation and rejected the NRA’s demand to preview information in response to a lawful subpoena,” James continued. “We won’t allow the NRA to control or intimidate witnesses’ responses to subpoenas or compromise the integrity of our investigation.”
The 13-page ruling by Judge Melissa Crane came nearly four months after oral arguments on the issue at the end of October.
Articulating the state’s main argument back in October 2019, Assistant Attorney General John Oleske said the target of an investigation should not learn what the investigators are about to learn before those investigators learn it. Crane agreed.
“The NRA cannot use its publicist as a sword and a shield, for public outreach when it feels so inclined, and, in other instances, remain tucked away from public view,” she wrote.
The nonprofit had also expressed concern that names and information of its donors would be publicly revealed during the course of the investigation. During oral arguments, the NRA’s attorney Sarah Rogers of Brewer Attorneys & Counselors said the group needs to protect the First Amendment rights and identifying information of its members and donors — data she conceded Ackerman might have.
In response, New York insisted it had made no requests for bulk donor information and that the NRA was merely speculating. It conceded, however, that donor information could be on the line in the future, which is standard “as part of the regulatory oversight of a nonprofit.”
But Crane rejected the NRA’s concerns.
“The NRA does not allege the specific ways that, should [the Office of the Attorney General] receive donor information, those donors would face physical threats or great financial harm,” she wrote, noting the group merely speculated that there are “many people in states like New York” who are hostile to the NRA’s agenda.
For the NRA, Rogers characterized Ackerman McQueen’s relationship with the gun-rights group as unique.
“The fact is that there is no publicist relationship that is actually factually comparable to this one,” she said last year.
But in her ruling, Crane defined it more clearly.
“The NRA’s continuous and long-lasting relationship with AMQ [Ackerman McQueen] does not alter what kind of services AMQ provided — specifically, public relations services as a third party,” Crane wrote. “Never did AMQ assume the functions and duties of an NRA employee.”
Crane also noted Ackerman McQueen has clients other than the NRA, own employees and its lawyers.
“OAG [Office of the Attorney General] is concerned about allegations of financial improprieties, improper related party transactions between the NRA and its officers and board members, and false or misleading disclosures in its regulatory filings,” she wrote.