State Rep. Stephen LaRoque had financial connections to the billboard business when he pushed and voted for a controversial law last year drastically expanding billboard companies’ abilities to chop down trees on public roadsides, according to records obtained by N.C. Policy Watch.
The law, S.B. 183/S.L 397, led to the passage of temporary rules last week that created a path for billboard owners to cut down publicly-owned trees on highway roadsides in order to make the advertisements more visible to motorists. Roadsides of major highways in the mountainous western part of the state stand to have the most trees chopped down (see photo illustrations at end of post) from the legislation pushed by the billboard industry and opposed by environmental groups. The law, as passed, doesn’t require that new trees be planted to replace those that are cut down.
LaRoque, a Kinston Republican and member of NC House Speaker Thom Tillis’ leadership team, was a sponsor of a House version of similar pro-billboard industry legislation, and was a significant player in the N.C. House as the Senate legislation made its way into law. His signature appears here on a conference committee report from June about the law.
He also owns billboards — $37,609 to $52,250 worth, according to a December 2010 balance sheet for LaRoque Management Group, a for-profit company he owns.
That information apparently wasn’t widely disclosed by LaRoque when he was voting on the billboard issue last summer, with no conflict-of-interest forms filed on LaRoque’s behalf with the House clerk’s office.
UPDATE: LaRoque sought an opinion from the N.C. Ethics Commission which found his ownership of billboards did not conflict with his sponsoring and voting on legislation that would benefit the billboard industry, according to this post by News & Observer Craig Jarvis published late Friday.
From the N&O:
“It was not a conflict because it affects all billboards throughout the state,” LaRoque said Friday. “Because the nonprofits only did four billboards, I had half interest in five billboards, it was not a significant number. It would have been a conflict if I did something specifically for one (billboard).”
The two economic development non-profits LaRoque runs, the East Carolina Development Company and Piedmont Development Company, also loaned federal money to two billboard companies in 2007 and 2009, according to records obtained by N.C. Policy Watch from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The non-profits receive USDA money as part of a federal program that loans money to small businesses in struggling rural areas in order to combat poverty.
Brown Outdoor Advertising of Beaulaville received a $30,000 loan in 2009 from the East Carolina Development Company, and Piedmont Development Company loaned $122,000 in 2007 to Owen Outdoor Advertising in Newton.
(Jarrett Brown, the owner of Brown Outdoor advertising says he is not related to state Sen. Harry Brown, the Jacksonville Republican that sponsored the Senate billboard legislation.)
Since August, N.C. Policy Watch has conducted extensive reporting on questionable management practices by LaRoque and his two federally-funded economic development non-profits. The USDA has confirmed it has an open investigation into LaRoque, and a bipartisan Legislative Ethics Committee has been asked to look into his conduct as well.
LaRoque has repeatedly said he has done nothing wrong, and was running his non-profits in compliance with rules set by the USDA.
The News & Observer’s Craig Jarvis also had this story Wednesday about the new tree-cutting rules.
See below how the N.C. Department of Transportation anticipates the new law will affect roadsides in the state. (Photo illustrations were obtained by the N.C. Sierra Club through a public records request.)