In Court, N.R.A. Questions Its Longtime Chief About His Luxury Spending

In a head-spinning day of court action on Monday, a lawyer for the National Rifle Association grilled its longtime chief, Wayne LaPierre, about his lavish spending.

Under rapid-fire questioning during his second day of testimony in a New York civil corruption trial, Mr. LaPierre admitted that much of his spending had not been authorized by the N.R.A.’s board and violated the group’s policies. But the legal fireworks appeared to be part of a strategy to the bolster the contention of Mr. LaPierre and the N.R.A. that they have reformed governance and that regulatory intervention is unnecessary.

Mr. LaPierre, 74, is a defendant in the lawsuit brought in 2020 by the New York attorney general, Letitia James. On the eve of the trial, he announced his resignation, which takes effect on Wednesday. The N.R.A. itself is also a defendant, as is John Frazer, its general counsel, as well as Wilson Phillips, a former finance chief.

The state has laid out many instances of Mr. LaPierre’s extravagant spending, including more than $250,000 on suits at one Beverly Hills boutique. There were also trips where Mr. LaPierre and his family were hosted by N.R.A. vendors with lucrative contracts on a luxury yacht called Illusions. And there was prodigious spending on charter flights; Mr. LaPierre didn’t dispute that some of the flights were solely for relatives. One family trip to the Bahamas cost the N.R.A. nearly $38,000.

The N.R.A. also sometimes paid more than $10,000 a session for hair and makeup for Mr. LaPierre’s wife, Susan, who used a stylist who had also worked on Hallmark movies.

Before questioning Mr. LaPierre, Sarah B. Rogers, one of the N.R.A.’s lawyers, asked the judge, Justice Joel M. Cohen of State Supreme Court in Manhattan, to give her broader latitude because Mr. LaPierre and the organization have variant interests. Any money recouped from Mr. LaPierre will be returned to the N.R.A.

Under her questioning, Mr. LaPierre conceded that much of his spending was improper, and that he had no approval for some lavish expenses, such as the hairstyling and makeup for his wife, or his family and friends’ use of hired cars and private planes.

“That was wrong, and it shouldn’t have happened?” Ms. Rogers asked Mr. LaPierre several times. And Mr. LaPierre typically responded “Yes.”

But Mr. LaPierre has run the N.R.A. for more than three decades and hired the legal team representing the organization. Ms. Rogers’s questions soon pivoted to governance changes made at Mr. LaPierre’s direction, on the advice of her firm. Mr. LaPierre said that “my business-expense process changed.” He also said he has made financial amends, and by April 2021 had paid about $300,000 back to the N.R.A.

“Looking through expense reports, looking through N.R.A. ledgers, looking through any other records I can find, I have paid them all back to the N.R.A. with interest,” he said.

The attorney general’s office has seen these efforts as too little too late. The N.R.A. began its reform efforts only after it became evident that it might face regulatory action in New York. The state has unique jurisdiction over the N.R.A., which was founded as a nonprofit there in 1871. Ms. James is seeking financial penalties and a bar on the defendants working for any nonprofit that operates in New York.

Much of Mr. LaPierre’s testimony, under questioning from the state, has concerned the details of his spending practices. He did try to justify some expenditures, saying he made a practice of buying suits at a pricey Beverly Hills boutique, Zegna, only because a contractor told him to, and argued that the suits were just “costumes I wore on TV.”

He also said he often did not know what was happening in the organization beneath him. He said he had not known who authorized some charter flights, or that a top official had received a seven-figure payment from a contractor that the official had managed. Mr. LaPierre also retained a close aide even after discovering that she stole tens of thousands of dollars.

Much of the criticism directed at Mr. LaPierre during the case has come from his own top lieutenants. Jonathan Conley, a lawyer with the attorney general’s office, asked Mr. LaPierre about one of them, Joshua Powell, a former top deputy who had reached a pretrial settlement.

Mr. LaPierre said he moved Mr. Powell out of his position after receiving complaints that he was abusive to staff. But he admitted that Mr. Powell received a promotion and a raise. Mr. LaPierre said he didn’t know how the raise was authorized, despite being Mr. Powell’s supervisor.

“I’m having trouble following this,” Mr. Conley said.

“Me, too,” Mr. LaPierre responded.

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