A major donor to the National Rifle Association is poised to challenge key aspects of the gun group’s bankruptcy filing, in an attempt to hold executives accountable for allegedly having defrauded their members of millions of dollars to support their own lavish lifestyles.
Dave Dell’Aquila, a former tech company boss who has donated more than $100,000 to the NRA, told the Guardian on Saturday he was preparing to lodge a complaint in US bankruptcy court in Dallas, Texas. If successful, it could stop top NRA executives discharging a substantial portion of the organisation’s debts.
It could also stop Wayne LaPierre, the NRA’s controversial longtime chief executive, avoiding ongoing lawsuits that allege he defrauded the pro-gun group’s members to pay for luxury travel to the Bahamas and Europe and high-end Zegna suits.
LaPierre has denied the allegations of financial impropriety, insisting in a letter to NRA members that the group is “well-governed, financially solvent and committed to good governance”.
Dell’Aquila’s complaint, likely to be brought within the next few weeks, would use a provision of the bankruptcy code to prevent the NRA from sidestepping more than $60m of debt on grounds it was improperly incurred. The law stipulates that debts acquired through malfeasance can be deemed by the court to be an exception to bankruptcy arrangements.
Speaking from his home in Nashville, Tennessee, Dell’Aquila said: “We intend to invoke this provision. We are going to ask the judge to determine that our claim was incurred as a result of fraud and should be deemed non-dischargeable.”
The NRA declared bankruptcy in the Dallas court on Friday. The organization also said it would be relocating from New York, where it was founded in 1871, to Texas.
After the chapter 11 filing, LaPierre admitted the move was designed to extricate the NRA from lawsuits threatening its existence. In August the attorney general of New York, Letitia James, sued the NRA in an attempt to shut it down, alleging its leaders had used it as a “personal piggy bank” and illegally diverted $64m for their own use.
LaPierre claims that civil lawsuit was politically motived. On Friday, he said the bankruptcy filing and move to Texas were a way of “dumping New York. The NRA is pursuing reincorporating in a state that values the contributions of the NRA.”
Dell’Aquila told the Guardian the move was predictable.
“I think they planned this all along,” he said. “It was always an ace they were going to play. It’s just tragic that the NRA is wasting millions of dollars in members’ money on attorney fees and this type of litigation. It’s shameful.”
A year before the New York legal action, Dell’Aquila brought his own class-action lawsuit against NRA executives on behalf of the 5.2 million members of the organization. In that suit, he recounted how he had donated $100,000, thinking it would go towards wildlife conservation and second amendment advocacy work.
Drawing on details uncovered by the former NRA president Oliver North, Dell’Aquila alleged that “LaPierre had received hundreds of thousands of dollars in clothing, private jet travel and other benefits”.
The suit points to $243,644 spent on luxury travel to the Bahamas, Palm Beach and Italy and $274,695 dispensed at clothing stores in Beverly Hills.
The NRA tried to have the civil suit dismissed, arguing Dell’Aquila had no standing to bring the action. But the judge allowed the case to go ahead with respect to individual claims of fraud on the part of NRA leaders in their solicitation of donations.
In November, the Wall Street Journal reported that the NRA had admitted current and former executives received at least $1.4m in improper or excessive benefits. The disclosure was made in tax filings.
Dell’Aquila’s lawsuit has been put on hold, pending the outcome of bankruptcy proceedings. He hopes that by filing his new complaint, he will be able to keep at least the $64m alleged in the New York lawsuit out of the bankruptcy deal and thus continue to hold LaPierre and other executives’ feet to the fire.
“Nothing has changed with Wayne as leader over the past 30 years,” he said. “The NRA is still an old boy’s club, making deals in the back room and unaccountable to the 5.2 million members who pay for everything. It has got to stop.”
The New York attorney general has also vowed to fight to stop NRA leaders escaping the legal consequences of their actions.
“We will not allow the NRA to use this or any other tactic to evade accountability and my office’s oversight,” James said after the bankruptcy filing was announced.