N.Y.’s James is right to go after the NRA for fraud and malfeasance. Seeking to dissolve it is a step too far | Bruce Ledewitz

INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA - APRIL 27: Wayne LaPierre, NRA vice president and CEO, attends the NRA annual meeting of members at the 148th NRA Annual Meetings & Exhibits on April 27, 2019 in Indianapolis, Indiana. A statement was read at the meeting announcing that NRA president Oliver North, whose seat at the head table remained empty at the event, would not serve another term. There have been recent reports of tension between LaPierre and North, with North citing financial impropriety within the organization. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

The remedy of dissolution sought in a lawsuit by New York Attorney General Letitia James against the National Rifle Association is one of the gravest threats to individual liberty this country has ever seen.

Bruce Ledewitz (Capital-Star file)

Even worse, most of the organizations and media outlets that would normally defend first amendment values from government overreach have been silent in the face of this threat because liberals so oppose the NRA’s pro-gun policies

James has authority to seek dissolution because the NRA is a non-profit, charitable corporation registered in New York. Typically, state attorneys general have oversight over such corporations to ensure they operate according to law and their funds and assets serve the organization’s charitable purpose.

In recent years, there have been repeated allegations of fiscal abuses by the leadership of the NRA, including lavish spending and self-dealing by Wayne LaPierre, the NRA’s longtime chief executive.

The suit names LaPierre, as well as three others, Wilson Philips, Joshua Powell and John Frazier, as contributing to these abuses. The suit also alleges that internal efforts to curtail these practices led to the expulsion of dissidents from the organization, an apparent allusion to former NRA President Oliver North, who is reported to be cooperating with the investigation.

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James’ civil lawsuit seeks reimbursement of funds illegally spent or earned by these four individuals, as well as other penalties, and the ouster of LaPierre and Frazier from NRA responsibilities. Philips and Powell no longer work there. The suit would also bar the four from serving on the board of any other charitable non-profit in New York State.

Assuming some or all of the allegations are true, the lawsuit and these remedies are entirely proper. Indeed, shortly after the James lawsuit was filed, the Attorney General of Washington, D.C., filed suit against the related NRA Foundation, which is incorporated in D.C., based on some of the same allegations. But without proposing dissolution.

Dissolution is different.

Dissolution of a charitable organization is utilized when an organization is essentially a scam, in which the funds raised do not serve the charitable purpose that contributors and members desire. In other words, if they had known the fraudulent nature of the organization, they would not have joined or contributed. A dissolution remedy is meant to protect current and future members and contributors from being fooled.

But the NRA does serve its intended purpose. James’ own press release acknowledges that the NRA is “the largest and most influential pro-gun organization in the nation.” Undoubtedly, the pro-gun aims of the NRA would have been more effectively furthered if there had been no mismanagement and abuse. Nevertheless, the NRA clearly remains very effective at firearms education and furthering the pro-gun cause.

For this reason, dissolving the NRA would have the political effect of crippling the pro-gun movement. That is the last thing in the world that the members and contributors of the NRA want.

There is every reason to believe that this political goal is precisely the reason that James is seeking dissolution. If she were genuinely interested in the welfare of the NRA’s membership and contributors, she would seek the substitution of honest leadership at the NRA and government oversight to ensure that the organization actually reforms its fiscal practices.

In that way, the law would be upheld, the guilty parties held to account, and the First Amendment interests of the members and contributors protected.

To see the political and constitutional abuse that James is perpetrating, imagine that it came to light that the current leadership of the American Cancer Society had engaged in mismanagement and fraud.

A lawsuit would be brought to recapture the funds that had been misspent and to identify the wrongful parties that had perpetuated the scheme. Reforms would be sought for the organization to prevent such things from happening in the future. But no attorney general would seek to close the American Cancer Society because, despite any fraud, the organization obviously still performs its intended function.

The same is true of the NRA.

James is an opponent of the political aims of the NRA. During her campaign to become New York Attorney General in 2018, she said, “The NRA holds [itself] out as a charitable organization, but in fact, [it] really [is] a terrorist organization.” This characterization had nothing to do with any financial improprieties. It shows a deep hostility to the NRA’s purpose.

What could be worse in a free country than for a powerful prosecutor to seek the destruction of a political opponent through the courts? Imagine the outrage there would be if U.S. Attorney General William Barr sought to close the American Civil Liberties Union, even if there were comparable financial abuses by its leadership.

So, where is the outrage over James’ attack on the speech and organizational rights of pro-gun citizens? Where are the calls for her removal from office? Where is the opposition to her tyranny?

The left has been frustrated for years by the ability of the NRA to prevent the enactment of sensible and needed gun-control laws. I know this because I have personally shared in this frustration. The NRA has been so powerful that some Pennsylvania Democrats gave up on gun issues in 2018 to have a better chance at retaking the House in Washington.

This frustration is so great that when the ACLU supported the NRA against New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s patently unconstitutional effort in 2018 to pressure banks and insurers not to do business with the NRA, the action badly split the ACLU, of which I am a member.

The left has decided to fight fire with fire. Faced with a Republican Party that shows little regard for constitutional rights, Democrats are more and more willing to override such rights themselves.

This threatens to be a short route to the end of our constitutional democracy. Today it’s them. Tomorrow it is certain to be us. You don’t want to look back one day and say, first, they came for the NRA and I said nothing.

Opinion contributor Bruce Ledewitz teaches constitutional law at Duquesne University Law School in Pittsburgh. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page.  Listen to his podcast, “Bends Toward Justice” here.