LaRoque a polarizing force in N.C. General Assembly

By: - August 3, 2011 11:15 am
N.C. General Assembly

N.C. General Assembly

N.C. General Assembly
N.C. General Assembly

Controversy stays close to N.C. Rep. Stephen LaRoque, a Kinston Republican whose unapologetic, aggressive style thrusts him into the spotlight on a regular basis.

Now in his third term after a four-year hiatus, LaRoque was named co-chair of the powerful Rules Committee this year by N.C. House Speaker Thom Tillis.

With his heightened role in the state legislature, LaRoque’s return to Raleigh has been anything but quiet.

In May, LaRoque called the Rev. William Barber*, president of the state NAACP, “racist” and the NAACP a “racist organization led by Racist individuals who are Cowards” in an email sent to the state group, according to multiple media reports.

Later that month, LaRoque was the subject of statewide and national attention when he hired an unemployed Goldsboro woman to do yard work for him. The $8-an-hour job offer came after a testy email exchange between the two where LaRoque told Kathryn “Cinnamon” Treadway¬† that “Most anyone can find a job if they can pass a drug test and are physically able to work.”

Treadway only did an hour’s work for LaRoque because she said she found it too physically taxing and felt LaRoque was trying to humiliate her. LaRoque denied that he was trying to humiliate her.

In comments he left on an N.C. Policy Watch posting about the incident, LaRoque later accused Treadway of lying about the circumstances surrounding her unemployment, and using the yard work situation as a media stunt.

“I hope you have not defrauded the taxpayers because if you have I can assure you that you will face the consequences,” LaRoque wrote in a public message directed at Treadway.

Taking part in online exchanges with critics and supports isn’t unusual for LaRoque, who frequently participates in online message forums including one hosted by this hometown Kinston newspaper. In a Huffington Post about the yard work incident, LaRoque left more than 80 comments over a three-day period defending his actions.

LaRoque was the subject of a recent N.C. Policy Watch investigation that found questionable financial and management practices at two federally-funded non-profits LaRoque runs and uses to offer loans to businesses in rural areas. Among the findings were that LaRoque earned generous six-figure salaries while stacking his board of directors with relatives and used some of the federal funds to lend out money to political and personal associates.

LaRoque did not respond to requests for comment nor answer questions about his pay and the management of his non-profits.

LaRoque first came to the state legislature in 2003, and spent two terms representing his Eastern North Carolina district before being voted out of office.

His interest in state office came after years spent in the financial institutions in Eastern North Carolina.

LaRoque, now 47, went to work at as the now-defunct NationsBank of North Carolina in the late 1980s and early 1990s, serving as a branch manager in Havelock, according to a copy of LaRoque’s resume found in USDA records.

Timeline of LaRaque's Activities
Timeline of LaRaque's Activities

He appears to have first gotten involved with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Intermediary Relending Program when he went in 1995 to work at the Neuse River Development Authority, a New Bern non-profit organization that provides small businesses with loans in the eastern part of the state.

LaRoque went out on his own in 1997, establishing East Carolina Development Company and quickly attracting millions of dollars in funding from the federal government. In 2003, he formed Piedmont Development Company, which was supposed to serve rural counties in the western part of the state despite its Kinston location.

Meanwhile, LaRoque’s political career got a second wind when he returned to the N.C. General Assembly this year. In last November’s election, LaRoque defeated Democratic incumbent Van Braxton to represent District 10, which includes parts of Lenoir, Greene and Wayne counties.

LaRoque’s professional life became an election issue, after a campaign mailer attacking LaRoque went out before the election and included accusations from the owner of a well-known Kinston barbecue restaurant that LaRoque mishandled a loan between the two. The barbecue owner, Bruce Patterson, had his shop and home foreclosed on by LaRoque after Patterson fell far behind on his loan payments.

Shortly before the election, LaRoque filed a defamation lawsuit against Braxton and the N.C. Democratic Party over the campaign mailer. The lawsuit is still pending.

LaRoque’s critics have also come from his own political party, including a public 2006 tiff he got in with Art Pope, a major GOP donor in the state.

Upset over losing his 2006 primary he lost, LaRoque was interviewed on two television stations and accused Pope of using money to influence elections.

“Art Pope is trying to buy the legislature,” LaRoque said, in a 2006 story from WRAL.

Pope took issue with LaRoque’s comment and sued LaRoque for defamation. Pope dropped the suit a year later in exchange for LaRoque issuing a public apology to Pope and agreeing to pay Pope’s legal fees, according to media reports at the time.

It was in that public fight with Pope that LaRoque retained Bert Diener, a Snow Hill attorney, to represent him, according to 2006 court records. Two years later, USDA records show Diener Law Firm received $150,000 in working capital loans from LaRoque’s non-profit. Diener is also representing LaRoque in the pending defamation lawsuit.

* The Rev. William Barber, president of North Carolina’s NAACP chapter, sits on the board of the N.C. Justice Center, the parent non-profit organization for N.C. Policy Watch. Barber was not consulted for this investigation or article, nor was he a part of any of the reporting or writing of this report.

Questions? Comments? Reporter Sarah Ovaska can be reached at (919) 861-1463 or [email protected]

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Sarah Ovaska-Few

Sarah Ovaska-Few, former Investigative Reporter for N.C. Policy Watch for five years, conducted investigations and watchdog reports into issues of statewide importance. Ovaska-Few was also staff writer and reporter for six years with the News & Observer in Raleigh, where she reported on governmental, legal, political and criminal justice issues.