A defense attorney for the National Rifle Association on Tuesday fought back against a civil suit by the State of New York, arguing that the actions of the N.R.A.’s leader, who spent fortunes on luxuries and travel, were not those of the organization itself.
The trial in a Manhattan courtroom comes as the nation’s most prominent gun lobby has been roiled by internal divisions, including the announced resignation last week of Wayne LaPierre, its leader for more than three decades. He was at the organization’s head as it became a powerhouse in American politics, batting back gun control efforts at the local and federal levels.
On Tuesday, a lawyer for the group, Sarah Rogers, tried in her opening statements to distance the organization from Mr. LaPierre, telling jurors that while he was a valuable leader, “he was not always a meticulous corporate executive.”
“The N.R.A. is not Wayne LaPierre,” Ms. Rogers said.
Ms. Rogers told the jury that no dollars donated to the N.R.A. were misspent, while also touting the group’s gun education and safety programs, women’s initiatives, and hunting and conservation advocacy.
New York’s attorney general, Letitia James, has accused the N.R.A. — which is chartered in New York and thus subject to her jurisdiction — of corruption and misuse of funds.
Ms. James, a Democrat, brought the suit in 2020. Since then, the N.R.A. has said it is “committed to good governance” and has “accepted reimbursement, with interest, for alleged excess benefit transactions from LaPierre,” who was said to have spent heavily on high-end boutiques in Beverly Hills, Calif., as well as more than $250,000 on travel to resorts in the Bahamas and Lake Como in Italy.
On Monday, with Mr. LaPierre in attendance, a lawyer from the attorney general’s office outlined the state’s case, describing indiscriminate spending by Mr. LaPierre, including vacations on a contractor’s superyacht.
But Ms. Rogers argued that some of those expenses were legitimate or had been repaid with interest. In referring to the yacht trips, she said that they “cost the N.R.A., its members and its donors zero — nothing.”
Still, she was unsparing in her evaluation of Mr. LaPierre’s tenure, arguing that while the N.R.A. was under his control, there had been a “betrayal” of the group’s mission. “When problems surfaced, those problems were corrected,” Ms. Rogers said.
Mr. LaPierre’s own lawyer, P. Kent Correll, praised his client’s work for the organization, saying “he served it well and honorably and honestly for 44 years until his health made it impossible.”
Mr. Correll said that Ms. James wanted to paint Mr. LaPierre as “not an honest person — that he wasn’t acting honestly with sincere intention to do what he thought was in the best interest of the N.R.A.”
“They want to paint him as a person that is not him,” Mr. Correll said.
The other defendants include John Frazer, the N.R.A.’s general counsel, and Wilson Phillips, a former finance chief, as well as Joshua Powell, who had served as the organization’s second-in-command but later turned against the group.
Last week, Mr. Powell reached a $100,000 settlement with Ms. James’s office, agreeing to admit to misusing funds, according to a statement released by her office. Mr. Powell had previously called for universal background checks for gun purchases and supported so-called red flag laws that allow the courts to seize firearms from people judged dangerous to themselves or others.
On Tuesday, Ms. Rogers said that both Mr. Phillips and Mr. Powell were “long gone.” “Good riddance,” she said.
Mr. LaPierre has defended his spending, saying that there was nothing “improper about it, given the fact that I was the face of the brand.”
N.R.A. leaders have argued that New York officials are persecuting the group, part of what they describe as a concerted effort by Ms. James to attack their conservative beliefs, which include an unwavering defense of the Second Amendment.
The group also recently enlisted the support of the American Civil Liberties Union in a federal lawsuit that accuses Andrew M. Cuomo, the state’s previous governor and a supporter of gun control, of misusing his administration’s authority by dissuading banks and insurers from doing business with the N.R.A.
Once among the most powerful lobbying groups in the United States, the N.R.A. has seen its influence dip amid a steep drop in membership; according to its internal audits, revenue is down more than 40 percent since 2016, with legal costs running into the tens of millions a year.
But on Monday, Monica Connell, a lawyer with the attorney general’s office, ardently rejected the idea that the gun group had been defanged, presenting Mr. LaPierre as “the king of the N.R.A.,” who had “corrupted and breached the N.R.A. from within.”