Under the Dome

Dome: LaRoque taps top lawyer amid money allegations

STAFF WRITERSNovember 18, 2011 

Rep. Stephen LaRoque has hired one of the state's most prominent criminal defense attorneys, Joseph Cheshire V of Raleigh, to deal with mounting problems over his management of two nonprofit organizations.

Cheshire emailed a letter to House Speaker Thom Tillis on Wednesday asking him not to take the "partisan political bait" in House Minority Leader Joe Hackney's earlier letter requesting Tillis appoint a special commission to investigate LaRoque.

Hackney cited media accounts over the past few months of the Kinston Republican's federally funded nonprofits, which make loans to new or expanding businesses in rural areas that haven't been able to obtain bank loans.

LaRoque made loans to two fellow legislators, put relatives and close associates on the board of directors, paid himself up to $195,000 a year, made a $200,000 loan from the nonprofits to his for-profit company and didn't report that to the IRS, according to records uncovered by N.C. Policy Watch.

"The mere existence of media reports 'appearing' to say something falls far below any standard for convening special investigatory commissions," Cheshire wrote. "If we as a society begin to appoint 'independent commissions' to investigate 'media' accounts of politicians, there will be no end to these commission hearings."

Tillis decided it would be best handled by the Legislative Ethics Committee instead of a special commission, and referred Hackney's request to that committee.

"That process seeks to ascertain the validity of accusations by one member against another and to determine which claims are driven by ulterior motives or pure political gamesmanship," Tillis wrote Hackney.

The allegations about LaRoque surfaced through a lengthy investigation by N.C. Policy Watch, a project of the left-leaning N.C. Justice Center. LaRoque has said he did nothing wrong and called Policy Watch "a liberal propaganda tabloid."

Cheshire added a final zinger in his letter.

"Based on the recent media reporting of 'political investigations' regarding members of Mr. Hackney's own party, we can have no comfort that such a political investigation will not create a destructive media circus with no checks on truth."

Mulling superintendent run

State Rep. Tricia Cotham, a Charlotte Democrat, says she'll run for state superintendent of public instruction "if there's a vacancy," writes The Charlotte Observer's Jim Morrill.

Incumbent Democrat June Atkinson says she'll decide whether to run for a third term at the end of the year. Others thinking about running: Rep. Rick Glazier, a Fayetteville Democrat, and Republican Wake school board member John Tedesco.

Tedesco said Thursday that he will decide after New Year's Day.

Debating Racial Justice Act

Supporters of the Racial Justice Act on Thursday pushed back against state prosecutors, who want the General Assembly to repeal the law as soon as possible.

The Democratic legislators who were the key sponsors of the act, other lawmakers and death-penaltyopponents held a news conference in the Legislative Building to urge the act be protected.

The Racial Justice Act allows death-row inmates to petition judges to commute their sentences to life in prison without parole if they can prove racial bias through statistical and other evidence.

"North Carolina's elected district attorneys should uphold the lawinstead of waging a campaign todestroy it," said the Rev. WilliamBarber, NAACP state chapter president.

Senate Democratic Leader Martin Nesbitt of Asheville said the inmates' claims should be left to judges.

"At the end of the day, the courtsystem is what stands between the people and their government, and it protects them from us," Nesbitt said.

cjarvis@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4576

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