A legislator's dealings

August 12, 2011 

At the least, state Rep. Stephen LaRoque of Kinston has some explainin' to do. And the obligation should be shared - by LaRoque's fellow Republicans who hold the majority in the state House. They should be reviewing his business affairs - the subject of detailed investigative reporting by N.C. Policy Watch - and sharing their findings with the public.

According to Policy Watch's Sarah Ovaska (who happens to be a former N&O reporter), LaRoque was earning as much as $195,000 a year as the head of two small federally funded organizations that made economic development loans in rural areas. That sort of compensation exceeds what someone doing such work typically makes, and board members of the groups seem not to have been well-informed about his pay.

LaRoque declined to answer any questions, either verbally or in writing, posed by Policy Watch, which is affiliated with the nonprofit N.C. Justice Center. He has asserted elsewhere that his pay did not represent taxpayer money, but was instead taken from the proceeds of repaid loans.

That looks like a distinction without a difference. And it also turns out that the U.S. Department of Agriculture, under whose auspices the East Carolina Development Co. and the Piedmont Development Co. operated, was not exactly on the ball with its oversight. For four years running, the department missed its required annual field visits to check on LaRoque's groups.

It's true that if LaRoque's colleagues start asking questions, things could become a little awkward. For example, in two instances identified by Policy Watch, the recipients of funds channeled through Piedmont Development Co. were fellow Republican legislators. Sen. Debbie Clary in 2006 was reported to have gotten $101,250 to boost her Shelby marketing business. And in 2007 a $150,000 loan went to Rep. Gary Hilton of Conover for a family-owned rental property management firm. (LaRoque, sidelined after an election defeat in 2006, was not in office at the time. He was re-elected last year to serve his third two-year term.)

Serving as a co-chairman of the House Rules Committee, LaRoque has influence on Jones Street, and what Policy Watch describes as his "unapologetic, aggressive" style no doubt makes him a tough customer. But when questions arise about a public official's stewardship of public money, answers should be forthcoming. The House leadership should not simply avert its gaze.

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