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NRA corruption trial preview


A civil trial set to begin tomorrow morning in New York could further upend the National Rifle Association. The group's longtime leader, Wayne LaPierre, announced last week that he's stepping down after 31 years. But he remains the focus of the trial, which will look at alleged misuse of funds at the powerful group. There have been more developments on the eve of the trial as well. Another former top NRA official, Joshua Powell, has now admitted wrongdoing in the case and will pay $100,000 in restitution. NPR's Brian Mann has been following this case, which is being brought by New York Attorney General Letitia James, and joins us now. Hi, Brian.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Hi there, Scott.

DETROW: So remind us - Wayne LaPierre. What did he accomplish in his time leading the NRA? Why is he so central to this case, even as he's finally stepped away?

MANN: Yeah. Wayne LaPierre is really one of the chief architects of the modern gun rights movement. His departure is a big deal, and it's really his leadership, Scott, that's under scrutiny in this corruption trial. For 30 years, he was part of an inner circle that moved the NRA to the right, to a far more hard-line position on gun regulation, at a time when mass shootings and other gun violence were rising - contributed really to the transformation of what had been a nonpartisan sportsman's group into a culture war machine with deep ties to the Republican Party. Here he is in a speech in 2012 laying out that vision.


WAYNE LAPIERRE: Is the press and the political class so consumed by fear and hatred of the NRA and American gun owners that you're willing to accept a world where real resistance to evil monsters is a lone, unarmed school principal?

MANN: So now, on the eve of this trial, LaPierre is stepping down. New York Attorney General Letitia James issued a statement, Scott, describing this moment as a victory. She said Joshua Powell's admission of wrongdoing and Wayne LaPierre's resignation confirm what we have alleged for years, quote, "the NRA and its senior leaders are financially corrupt." The head of the Brady Gun Control Group, Kris Brown, also issued a statement celebrating his departure. She said, quote, "Wayne LaPierre spent three decades peddling the big lie that more guns make us safer."

DETROW: Again, the trial is still going forward, though. Remind us what, specifically, the NRA is accused of doing wrong.

MANN: Yeah. So as we've been discussing, this organization's at the center of the national debate over gun control and gun safety. There was just another deadly mass shooting last week at a school in Iowa. And the NRA's managed to block most national gun regulation that some experts say would make Americans safer, but this lawsuit isn't focused on any of that. This is really about money. Attorney General James has argued that top NRA leaders, including LaPierre, basically turned the group into a grifter organization, taking more than $60 million and funneling it into their personal lives, and the consequences could be big. If the NRA loses this case, the group could be subject to really strict oversight by New York state officials. You know, one of the most conservative activist groups in the country would be watchdogged constantly by a Democratic state attorney general.

DETROW: But at the same time, as you've reported, over time, the NRA is not as powerful as it once was. There have been financial problems. It's scaled back its operations. Given all that, why does this trial still matter so much?

MANN: Yeah. From the outset, NRA officials have portrayed this as a political attack on their conservative organization. They made those arguments repeatedly. But those arguments got thrown out, which is why we're going to trial. But clearly, as you say, this legal fight and the scandal for LaPierre have crippled the NRA. They tried unsuccessfully to file for bankruptcy. They've lost a ton of members. So as this trial begins, the NRA is a shadow of its former self. But the NRA's hard-line stances, Scott, on gun rights and the Second Amendment, they do still shape the national debate. And we'll see whether this trial affects that role.

DETROW: That's NPR's Brian Mann. Thanks so much.

MANN: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Brian Mann is NPR's first national addiction correspondent. He also covers breaking news in the U.S. and around the world.