NEW YORK – The trial of State Attorney General Tish James to dissolve the National Rifle Association may proceed, a state judge said Thursday.
Judge Joel Cohen has dismissed the NRA’s requests to dismiss the case, stay it or transfer it to another court.
The attorney general filed a lawsuit in state court in August, seeking to bankrupt the NRA, accusing its executives of abusing funds and engaging in personal transactions.
The NRA argued that the case should be dismissed because it belongs to a federal court, not a state court, and that it should be heard in Albany instead of Manhattan.
The judge rejected all of these requests.
“The Attorney General is the primary law enforcement official in New York State. It enforces New York State law, ”Cohen said in a virtual hearing. “It would be inappropriate in these circumstances to conclude that the Attorney General cannot pursue her actions in state court simply because one of the defendants prefers to sue in federal court.”
Lawsuit accuses longtime NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre of taking lavish family vacations at NRA expense – flying with his family to the Bahamas on private jets eight times in five years – using the money of the NRA to buy Christmas presents for an associate and using a secret contract to secure a lifetime income from the gun group.
State law gives the Attorney General control over nonprofit organizations registered in New York, including the ability to bring an action to dissolve a nonprofit corporation. The lawsuit argues that the NRA should be dissolved because it has shown a pattern of conducting its business in a consistently fraudulent or illegal manner, violating its tax-exempt status. He claims the NRA has embezzled millions of dollars from its charitable mission, in violation of laws governing nonprofits.
The financially struggling gun rights group announced last week that it was “abandoning New York” to reincorporate in Texas and declare bankruptcy. “The NRA is abandoning a state where elected officials have militarized the legal and regulatory powers they exercise to penalize the Association and its members for purely political ends,” the organization said in its announcement.
But the attorney general said the move shouldn’t stop his case from moving forward.
The NRA filed its own cross-trial in Albany Federal Court, shortly after James filed his lawsuit, accusing his constitutional rights were violated and calling James’ actions in retaliation for exercising his rights under of the First Amendment. The NRA argued that it would be impractical to have the two cases heard in separate courts in different locations.
“This is a one-of-a-kind case,” NRA lawyer Sarah Rogers said in court on Thursday. “We have real constitutional demands here.”
She also argued on technical grounds that Albany, and not New York, was the appropriate venue for the case depending on where the organization’s office was established.
“The NRA is fighting for its very existence,” she said. “As long as there is ambiguity, why not fight for our existence in the place we have chosen?”
But Jonathan Conley, an attorney for the AG’s office, said the court should be allowed to sue in state court in Manhattan, and the judge agreed.
“New York State and this court have a vital interest in continuing this state enforcement action,” Conley said. “The complaint is based entirely on New York law. … This action involved public interests and issues of state law that are of critical importance to this state and this court.
“Today’s order reaffirms what we have known from the start: the NRA cannot dictate whether and where they will answer for their actions,” James said in a statement. “We thank the court for allowing our case to move forward and we look forward to holding the NRA accountable.”