By Daniel Trotta and Jonathan Stempel
(Reuters) -Wayne LaPierre resigned as leader of the National Rifle Association on Friday, ending a long career that saw it became one of the most powerful lobbies in Washington, only to have its prestige tarnished by graft accusations and a bankruptcy filing.
LaPierre, 74, chief executive since 1991, steps down just as New York state Attorney General Letitia James brings a corruption trial against the NRA, due to begin in state Supreme Court on Monday.
James had been seeking LaPierre’s removal from office, but he is still among three individual defendants in the case and is expected to testify.
The NRA has long accused James of targeting it for political purposes, and violating the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment for trying to silence its speech.
The group cited health reasons for LaPierre’s resignation, saying his longtime communications chief, Andrew Arulanandam, would replace him as CEO and executive vice president on an interim basis.
LaPierre helped build the NRA into a political powerhouse that has led efforts in Washington and in statehouses to expand gun rights under the Second Amendment of the Constitution, successfully fighting off attempts at gun control even as the number of mass shootings mounted across the country.
The trial set for a Manhattan courtroom on Monday apparently will proceed without delay. “We look forward to presenting our case in court,” James said on X, formerly Twitter.
LaPierre was in the courtroom all week as jurors were being selected for the trial, a person familiar with the matter said.
“The end of the Wayne LaPierre era at the NRA is an important victory in our case. LaPierre’s resignation validates our claims against him, but it will not insulate him from accountability,” James said.
NRA counsel William Brewer also said the organization was “prepared and ready” for trial.
“The NRA will defend its governance programs and its substantial efforts in support of the freedoms it fights to defend,” Brewer said in a statement, adding that the board accepted LaPierre’s resignation “with an outpouring of admiration for all he’s done to defend freedom.”
Gun control advocates celebrated the resignation.
Kris Brown, president of the gun violence prevention group Brady, mockingly said, “Thoughts and prayers to Wayne LaPierre,” referring to a phrase often repeated by those who show support for victims of mass shootings but decline to call for stricter gun laws.
Nick Suplina, senior vice president of Everytown and a former adviser to Attorney General James, said he expects the NRA to continue its current path because Arulanandam and the senior leadership have been LaPierre loyalists.
“Ten years after the NRA was an absolute political juggernaut and struck fear in the hearts of legislators in Washington and in states across the country, they are a shell of what they once were,” Suplina said.
“They are not in a position to be particularly politically relevant in 2024 because their brand is so damaged.”
NRA revenue has slid 44% since 2016, a court filing shows, as membership has slumped. Once as high as 5.5 million, membership was down to 4.2 million in September 2022, said former NRA board member Phil Journey, who said the board was briefed on membership.
“We were shedding 1,000 members a day, net, at that time. It’s probably less than 4 million now,” said Journey, who was left off the board after he cast the lone vote against re-appointing LaPierre during the NRA’s annual meeting last year.
Despite the legal and financial troubles, LaPierre was easily re-elected last year by the 76-member board, a reflection of his fundraising and legislative success over the years.
The group’s ability to rebound may depend on how well it fares in the upcoming trial.
James sued the NRA in August 2020, saying it diverted millions of dollars to fund luxuries for top officials, including travel expenses for LaPierre to several resorts.
The attorney general had previously sought to shut down the NRA, but the judge rejected that effort in March 2022.
One of the four individuals originally named as defendants settled late on Friday. Joshua Powell, the former NRA second-in-command, agreed to reimburse the group $100,000 and admitted that he used its charitable assets for his own benefit.
In January 2021, the NRA filed for bankruptcy protection in Texas, in a strategy to re-organize there and escape James’ probe, but a bankruptcy judge dismissed that case.
(Reporting by Daniel Trotta and Jonathan Stempel; Additional reporting by Steve Holland and Doina Chiacu; Editing by Bill Berkrot and Clarence Fernandez)