NRA doesn’t have veto power over N.Y. subpoenas, judge says

Erik Larson

The National Rifle Association can’t prevent New York investigators from seeing documents subpoenaed from its former advertising agency in a probe of the organization’s nonprofit status, a judge ruled.

The decision, posted on Monday, is a victory for New York Attorney General Letitia James, who began investigating the NRA after a leadership clash at the organization led to internal allegations of self-dealing.

The trove of documents related to the NRA that the ad agency, Ackerman McQueen, has is extensive after a relationship that spanned over three decades and covered every aspect of the organization’s dealings with the public. The subpoenas seek documents related to anything that could shed light on whether the group made false or misleading disclosures in its regulatory filings.

Protesters gather outside the Supreme Court in Washington, Monday, Dec. 2, 2019.

The NRA argued that Ackerman McQueen can’t hand over the documents without first giving it a chance to review and possibly veto them. The NRA said its communications with the agency are protected by attorney-client privilege because they regularly covered legal strategy, such as views on the Second Amendment.

Melissa Crane, a state court judge in Manhattan, didn’t buy the argument. In her ruling, she noted the group’s former spokeswoman Dana Loesch regularly discussed legal matters on the NRA’s online TV platform.

“The NRA cannot use its publicist as a sword and a shield, for public outreach when it feels so inclined, and, in other instances, remain tucked away from public view,” Crane wrote in her decision.

The judge also rejected the NRA’s claim that Ackerman McQueen, by handing over documents to New York, could expose the personal information of NRA members and expose them to possible threats from the state.

“Rather than provide concrete examples of the harassment and retaliation the donors might face should the NRA reveal their identities, the NRA speculates that there are many people in states like New York who bear animosity toward the NRA and its political speech,’” Crane said.

Ackerman McQueen had managed the NRA’s public-relations strategy for more than 30 years, taking in nearly $40 million from the gun-rights organization in 2017 alone. A falling out between them triggered several lawsuits over fees.

“Today’s ruling will assist in the process of ridding Ackerman McQueen of the NRA’s unnecessary restrictions on cooperation with the authorities,” the advertising agency said in a statement.

A lawyer for the NRA didn’t immediately respond to a message seeking comment.

In a statement, James said the NRA was attempting to “stifle and interfere” in her investigation. Her role as New York’s top law enforcement officer includes overseeing compliance of nonprofits in the state.

“The court has stopped the NRA from acting as a set of virtual eyes and ears over our investigation and rejected the NRA’s demand to preview information in response to a lawful subpoena,” James said. “We won’t allow the NRA to control or intimidate witnesses’ responses to subpoenas or compromise the integrity of our investigation.”

The case is National Rifle Association of America v. James, 158019/2019, New York State Supreme Court, New York County.