There has been a flurry of sealed filings over the last two weeks in the criminal case for former state Rep. Stephen LaRoque, a Kinston lawmaker convicted of stealing federal money from economic development groups.
The court documents for LaRoque’s case shows that both assistant U.S. Attorney Dennis Duffy and, LaRoque’ defense attorney Joe Cheshire have filed sealed motions and documents, the contents of which are unknown.
LaRoque, a former lawmaker from Kinston, was convicted June 7 on a dozen charges related to $300,000 he took from two economic development groups he ran that were funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to provide loans to businesses in struggling rural areas. (Click here  for more background on the case and trial.) The criminal case stemmed from an N.C. Policy Watch investigation  into how LaRoque managed the non-profits.
The first sealed entry in LaRoque’s case came in the form of a “Proposed sealed document” from federal prosecutors on June 12, and then responses followed from LaRoque’s attorneys. In all, there have been more than 20 entries on the case’s docket referring to sealed motions, sealed responses to motions, sealed memorandums and sealed orders from June 12 through Wednesday.
There was also a closed hearing in front of Senior U.S. District Court Judge Malcolm Howard on June 19, the transcript of which is – you guessed it — sealed.
It’s a bit of a departure from how most criminal cases get handled din federal courts.
Courts proceedings, filings and the like are almost always public, and documents are only sealed if lawyers can convince a federal judge that there is sensitive enough information to justify keeping it from the public’s eyes, said Richard Myers, a, University of North Carolina law professor with expertise in the corruptions, white-collar crime and federal criminal law.
Myers said there’s a number of possibilities that the document are being kept under seal, from references to sensitive financial information that could be involved in determining restitution or damages in the case to issues concerning confidential information being used in an ongoing criminal cases where public disclosure could jeopardize an investigation.
“Sometimes it has to do with financial information or if it’s coming from confidential sources that might affect other cases,” Myers said. “It is rare to have multiple filings and a closed hearing.”
LaRoque’s attorneys did publicly file motions last week for a new trial and motions to acquit on the 12 counts the jury convicted him on.
During the trial, jurors heard different accounts from board members and other witnesses about whether or not he had an existing contract that entitled him to three percent of the non-profit’s total assets. LaRoque’s attorney argued he did have a contract, while prosecutors argued he didn’t.