By Jonathan Stempel and Luc Cohen
NEW YORK (Reuters) -Wayne LaPierre ran the National Rifle Association (NRA) as “Wayne’s World” for decades, a lawyer for New York state said at the start of the gun rights group’s corruption trial, three days after LaPierre suddenly resigned as chief executive.
New York Attorney General Letitia James had sued the NRA and its longtime leader in August 2020, saying the group diverted millions of dollars to fund luxuries for top officials, including travel expenses for LaPierre to several resorts.
In her opening statement, state lawyer Monica Connell told the six jurors and six alternates that NRA officials failed to obtain board approval for conflicts of interest and insider transactions, arranged no-show contracts for associates, and retaliated against whistleblowers who suspected wrongdoing.
“The NRA allowed Wayne LaPierre and his group of insiders … to operate the NRA as ‘Wayne’s World’ for decades,” said Connell, alluding to the 1992 movie starring Mike Myers and Dana Carvey. “Wayne LaPierre and his friends effectively suppressed the voice of anyone who challenged his leadership.”
James has said the NRA’s and LaPierre’s misconduct violated state laws governing nonprofits, which she enforces.
The NRA, founded in 1871, has denied wrongdoing and said it has made reforms.
It has also accused James, a Democrat, of targeting it for political purposes, and violating the First Amendment for trying to silence its speech.
Defense lawyers are expected to present their opening statements in the Manhattan courtroom on Tuesday. LaPierre is expected to testify later.
In an emailed statement, the NRA’s lawyer William Brewer said James’ office “cannot prove that the association or its board did anything wrong. The NYAG outline of the case is about the past, not the present.”
The trial comes at a difficult time for the NRA, which has seen revenue slide 44% since 2016 and membership drop by nearly one-third since 2018.
The NRA cited health reasons for LaPierre’s resignation, and on Monday said the 74-year-old has chronic Lyme disease.
Longtime communications chief Andrew Arulanandam was named interim chief executive.
Since taking over in 1991, LaPierre built the NRA into a political powerhouse that pressed Washington and statehouses to expand gun rights, even as mass shootings mounted nationwide.
Its efforts have been bolstered since 2008 by three major U.S. Supreme Court decisions that expanded gun rights.
LaPierre, secretary and general counsel John Frazer, and former finance chief Wilson Phillips are the three remaining individual defendants in James’ case.
A fourth defendant, former NRA second-in-command Joshua Powell, settled on Friday, agreeing to reimburse $100,000 and admitting he improperly used NRA assets.
Powell was fired by the NRA in 2020. He later accused the group of corruption and greed, and expressed support for some gun-control measures.
Former NRA President Oliver North, who left the group in a 2019 leadership dispute, is also due to testify.
The trial before Justice Joel Cohen of the state supreme court is expected to last six weeks.
Jurors will assess whether the individual defendants engaged in financial misconduct and how much they should repay the NRA.
Payments could be reduced if jurors were to blame the NRA for allowing any misconduct.
The jury will also recommend whether Frazer should be ousted, with the judge to decide later on removal.
LaPierre’s job security had also been in play before he resigned.
His resignation is effective on Jan. 31. The NRA said that after that date he will neither work nor consult for the group, and that he has no severance arrangements.
A state appeals court in late December let the case go to trial. It said James’ probe appeared to uncover “ample evidence of malfeasance,” while the NRA had resisted a leadership overhaul that might have tackled some problems.
James had previously sought to close the NRA, but Cohen rejected that effort in March 2022.
(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel and Luc Cohen in New YorkEditing by Noeleen Walder, Rosalba O’Brien and Matthew Lewis)