Former state Rep. Stephen LaRoque’s sentencing date has been delayed while his attorney renews concerns that juror misconduct in the case prevented the former state lawmaker from receiving a fair trial.
In a federal criminal case that’s been far from typical, the hearing next week in Greenville on a motion for a new trial could offer turn into an eleventh hour reprieve for LaRoque, a Kinston Republican and onetime member of N.C. House Speaker Thom Tillis’ leadership team.
Senior U.S. District Court Judge Malcolm Howard, who presided over LaRoque’s jury trial this spring, issued an order Monday that LaRoque’s Sept. 12 sentencing be delayed and a hearing for a new trial be held in its place.
LaRoque faced likely prison time for his June conviction on 10 criminal charges related to the theft of $300,000 from two federally-funded economic development non-profits he ran as part of a rural lending program to help struggling businesses.
The former lawmaker maintained his innocence throughout his three-week jury trial this spring, and claimed that the money was not stolen but deferred compensation owed to him through generous contracts he had with the small non-profits. As prosecutors pointed out during the trial, the board of directors of the East Carolina Development Company and Piedmont Development Company consisted solely of LaRoques in recent years – Stephen LaRoque, his wife and brother.
Guilty verdicts on two additional tax fraud charges had already been set aside by Howard after a juror’s admission about looking up the IRS tax rules for individual-owned businesses, a violation of the explicit instructions given to jurors to only consider evidence presented in the courtroom.
LaRoque’s attorney, Joe Cheshire, filed a motion late last week indicating that the juror’s home research affected the entire case, and not just the tax fraud charges.
“If it were not for me conducting this home internet research, the juror would have remained hung on all counts indefinitely,” the juror wrote in an affidavit Cheshire included with his motion.
Also from Cheshire’s motion:
This was an unfortunate occurrence for all involved. For the Defendant, prior to this improper research, at least one juror was (and upon information and belief, multiple jurors were) voting consistently in the Defendant’s favor on all counts, and the juror had not reached a single unanimous guilty verdict. For the Government, it ultimately obtained a verdict in its favor, which is now suspect and must be set aside. For the court, its time and resources must again be spent trying a case that appeared, for a short time, to have been resolved according to appropriate procedures. But justice and the law require a new trial of each count.
For more background on the case, you can read N.C. Policy Watch’s 2011 investigation into LaRoque’s non-profits, which found LaRoque received generous salaries of up to $195,000 a year from the federally-funded non-profits and stacked his board of directors with members of his immediate family , his wife and brother. The investigation also found that the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which funded the non-profits, had scant oversight of the rural lending program and unclear rules about how the federal funds should be managed.