The Internal Revenue Service is investigating longtime National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre for possible criminal tax fraud related to his personal taxes, according to people familiar with the matter.
Mr. LaPierre was paid $2.2 million by the NRA in 2018, the most recent year available, the nonprofit group’s public filings show. His total reported pay from 2014 to 2018 was $11.2 million.
In August, he was charged in a civil suit by New York Attorney General Letitia James with taking millions of dollars of allegedly undisclosed compensation from the NRA and its vendors, in the form of free yacht trips, private jet flights for his family, exotic safaris and other benefits.
Asked at a news conference announcing the lawsuit whether she believed Mr. LaPierre had evaded personal taxes, Ms. James declined to comment but said she was referring the matter to the IRS.
The AG lawsuit claimed the NRA’s failure to include certain personal benefits in Mr. LaPierre’s W-2 annual-compensation forms “permitted him to file false personal tax returns with the IRS.”
P. Kent Correll, an attorney for Mr. LaPierre, said, “We’re not aware of any inquiry, so it would be premature for us to comment.”
“The NRA is not aware of any IRS inquiry but, of course, will fully cooperate with any appropriate requests for assistance,” said William A. Brewer III, an outside attorney for the NRA, who noted that the group’s tax filings are audited.
The gun-rights organization has called the legal action by James, a Democrat, politically motivated, and Mr. LaPierre previously defended the NRA as well-governed, saying, “We’re ready for the fight. Bring it on.”
The IRS’s criminal investigation is being reported for the first time by The Wall Street Journal.
If the IRS believes a taxpayer has underreported income, the agency often pursues the matter through a civil audit, claiming the taxpayer owes back taxes and penalties. To show criminal behavior, tax specialists said, the IRS would have to demonstrate that a taxpayer willfully underreported income, typically over multiple years.
It couldn’t be determined how far along the investigation is, and such probes can end with no charges filed.
Several others were named along with Mr. LaPierre in the New York attorney general’s complaint, which alleged that corruption was rampant at the NRA and sought to dissolve the group. As a New York-registered nonprofit, the NRA is regulated by the New York attorney general’s office.
News of the investigation into Mr. LaPierre comes in the waning weeks of a contentious presidential election, in which the NRA is buying ads to bolster President Trump’s campaign, after heavily supporting Mr. Trump in the 2016 election.
Mr. LaPierre, 70 years old, has run the NRA for nearly three decades, shaping the group into a pugnacious and powerful lobbying force focused on the Second Amendment.
Details of Mr. LaPierre’s lavish expenses began to emerge in early 2019 amid a boardroom rift. Leaked documents showed that Mr. LaPierre had charged more than $540,000 in clothing and luxury travel to Europe and the Bahamas to the NRA’s longtime ad firm.
The Journal later reported that the NRA paid for private jets to ferry around Mr. LaPierre’s relatives. The NRA has said the clothing and travel expenses had valid business justifications.
The August lawsuit by Ms. James’s office added new allegations, including that Mr. LaPierre and his relatives flew at least eight times in recent years to the Bahamas on private jets that cost the NRA more than $500,000.
Once in the Bahamas, Mr. LaPierre allegedly stayed in a hotel paid for by a Hollywood producer who is a large NRA vendor, or aboard the producer’s 108-foot yacht. Mr. LaPierre didn’t mention the yacht trips on annual ethics forms that required disclosure of any gifts worth more than $250 from an NRA vendor, the complaint said.
In his testimony to the attorney general’s office, Mr. LaPierre said he didn’t disclose the yacht trips for security reasons and because he considered the boat to have been used for a legitimate business purpose, including discussions between his wife and a niece about the NRA Women’s Leadership Forum—a group both were involved with, according to the attorney general’s complaint.
“Any time I get the two of them together anywhere, there is a benefit for the NRA,” the complaint says that he testified. “Yeah, they got together in the Bahamas … it could have been in Washington.”
Mr. LaPierre also testified it is NRA policy that he travel by private aircraft at all times for security reasons and that he wasn’t aware of any limits on how much he can spend on the flights, according to the attorney general’s complaint.
In investigating a criminal tax case, “the IRS would be looking for evidence of concealment,” said Mark Matthews, a former chief of the IRS’s Criminal Investigation unit, now a tax attorney at Caplin & Drysdale. Routing expenses through third parties or not reporting them on questionnaires could be evidence of concealment, he said, but also could have benign explanations.
Criminal tax cases involving executives of large nonprofits are rare. In the 1990s, the late William Aramony, then-CEO of United Way, was forced out and indicted on criminal charges that included tax fraud for siphoning money from the charity for lavish expenses. He served six years in prison.