Bruce Patterson only needs to glance out the kitchen window of his late mother’s home to see the life he once had.
Within view are the home and barbecue restaurant he built on a piecemeal basis on this rural Kinston area road that carries his family name. Both are now shuttered and closed, taken in 2006 when former state Rep. Stephen LaRoque initiated foreclosure proceedings for a business loan that Patterson fell behind on for Chaps Restaurant.
“When someone takes your house, they pull that rug from under you,” said Patterson, 65. “I haven’t been able to recover and that’s what I’m waiting for, to make myself whole again.”
Patterson said that LaRoque, a prominent member of the state legislature until 2012, aggressively pushed him to taking out nearly $380,000 in business loans for a restaurant expansion as part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture rural lending program. Patterson fell behind in payments and the foreclosures, he contends, came when Patterson refused to sell LaRoque the secret recipe he used to flavor his Eastern North Carolina-style barbecue.
They are accusations that LaRoque has repeatedly denied, but the former lawmaker’s own business practices were called into serious question this month after a federal jury convicted him Friday of repeatedly dipping into the coffers of the federally-funded rural development charity to enrich his own life.
Jurors in the Greenville courtroom heard three weeks of complicated testimony about the non-profit’s financials and how LaRoque used the non-profit’s federally-sourced money to help buy cars, a house, a Greenville ice-skating rink, expensive jewelry and replica Faberge eggs from 2005 to 2010. The Kinston Republican, once the powerful co-chair of the N.C House Rules Committee until his 2012 indictment and resignation, will be sentenced in September and faces a possible prison sentence of more than 90 years.
LaRoque, who took the stand in his own defense, told jurors he was innocent of any wrongdoing and that the money in question was owed to him as part of a generous compensation package.
“It was my money,” LaRoque testified. “I don’t know how you can steal your own money.”
Patterson had been one of the first to publicly raise concerns about LaRoque when his image and statements he made that LaRoque stole his home business were included on a 2010 campaign mailer LaRoque’s Democratic opponent, Van Braxton. LaRoque sued Braxton and Patterson for defamation, though the lawsuit was eventually dismissed after East Carolina Development Company, the non-profit LaRoque ran, paid more than $17,000 in contempt of court fees for not turning over records to Braxton’s attorneys.
“I kind of got used in this process,” Patterson said recently.
Though Patterson’s name came up several times at the trial, he was not called as a witness nor had he heard directly from the federal prosecutors or federal agents that pursued the case against LaRoque.
“This thing is going right by you,” Patterson said he realized recently.
He proudly recalls the pass successes of Chaps, where he employed a few dozen people and cooked up 150 whole hogs a week and 600 chickens. Catering orders came in from everywhere from Elizabeth City to Raleigh, and the main location on Patterson Road was so popular, he never got around to putting up a sign out front.
“If you got this far back, you knew when you’re here,” Patterson said, pointing to a collection of shuttered cement-block buildings. “And, you could have smelled it.”
It’s been seven years since that heavy scent of roasted pig clung in the air and Patterson hopes to re-open his business again and be compensated for his losses.
“I have no other options but try to go back to work,” he says.
But it’s not clear if that will happen. Property records show that East Carolina Development Company, the non-profit LaRoque ran, sold the buildings in late April to a Kinston couple, Eduardo and Edith Abrego Tinoco.
USDA representative Delane Johnson declined to answer questions about whether or not USDA officials were aware of the sale.
For Patterson, the ordeal has hardened his resolve to do business on his own terms, and not take out loans where he could lose it all again
The demand for his chicken and barbecue, which he refers to as “product,” is still out there, he says. He’s routinely stopped by people in Kinston asking him if he’ll open up again.
Yes, he tells them. He just doesn’t know when, or where.
Questions? Comments? Reporter Sarah Ovaska can be reached at (919) 861-1463 or firstname.lastname@example.org.