Mum’s the word: gag order shakes the Fayetteville community
After wealthy Fayetteville businessman Mike Lallier was charged with criminal sexual misconduct with a minor, a judge’s decision to issue a gag order about the matter provoked serious debate.
An individual charged with a sex offense against a minor is not going to garner a great deal of sympathy from anyone. Sex offenders, especially those who harm children, are metaphorically thrown by society into the same group as people who hurt animals or the elderly, and are morally discarded in the public’s eye long before they go to trial. As soon as the first story hits the paper, society makes assumptions and forms conclusions about the terrible things these people must have done. When the offender happens to be a rich white guy and the judge issues a “gag order” in the case, the assumptions may very well rise to outrage. Alarms go off and many assume the rich guy is pulling strings and is perhaps going to get away with the terrible things he has done, which is something society now seems to expect.
The aforementioned story began to play out when Mike Lallier was arrested on September 5, 2016 at 4:07 a.m. Mike Lallier, along with his father-in-law Gene Reed, own Reed-Lallier Chevrolet car dealership located in Fayetteville, North Carolina. The dealership is one of the most successful in the area, and the business has allowed Lallier to achieve prominence in the Fayetteville community in several ways. Until recently, Lallier had been a member of the board of the Public Works Commission for approximately 12 years. Lallier had also been involved with the Boy Scouts of America and other civic organizations. As a result of his extensive community involvement, when word of his arrest first surfaced, many people were justifiably shocked.
The situation began with a trip to Darlington, South Carolina for the Bojangle’s Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. Mike Lallier and a group of families drove and parked their motor homes in the infield at the raceway. The allegations state that sometime on September 3, 2016, while inside his motor home, Mike Lallier fondled a fifteen-year-old boy. The following day his family noticed a change in the boy’s behavior and asked questions that led to him describing what had happened.
Lallier was arrested in the middle of the night and charged with third degree criminal sexual conduct with a minor under sixteen years old.
Members of the group at the racetrack, which may have included the boy’s father and an employee at Reed-Lallier Chevrolet, flagged down a Darlington County Sheriff’s Deputy and told the officer what they believed had happened. Lallier was arrested in the middle of the night and charged with third degree criminal sexual conduct with a minor under sixteen years old. While at the jail, he called the dealership employee that had helped turn him in and, allegedly asked him not to cooperate with law enforcement. A little over 24 hours later, Lallier posted a $10,000 bond and was released.
A couple of days later, on September 7, 2016, the story took the first of many unique turns. The Fayetteville Observer became aware of a letter labeled, “Confidential Settlement Communication.” The document is a letter from two Fayetteville attorneys, Michael Porter and Reed Noble, to David Courie, the attorney representing Mike Lallier. It appeared that Porter and Noble were representing several individuals, one of which was the employee that had helped report the incident at the racetrack. A few days later, on September 19, 2016, Judge Roger E. Henderson issued a “gag order” in the case prohibiting any of the parties from discussing the case outside of court.
The case took another interesting turn on November 22, 2016, when the employee that helped report the incident filed suit in Cumberland County Superior Court. An out-of-town judge was assigned to the case and ordered information about the case and the gag order to be sealed. Cumberland County Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Jim Ammons had requested the out-of-town judge to avoid any appearance that Mike Lallier was receiving favorable local treatment. Just over one month later, on December 29, 2016, the employee that made the report and filed suit against Mike Lallier and the dealership was fired. He had previously been on administrative leave since the incident at the racetrack.
“To me, that’s speech police.”
The drama continued on December 30, 2016, when the fired employee dropped his civil suit the same day Mike Lallier filed a suit against him and sought a restraining order to prevent the employee from shedding light on the details of the situation. That restraining order was denied a few days later by Cumberland County Superior Court Judge Mary Ann Tally who stated, “To me, that’s speech police.”
Lallier later dismissed his suit against the employee on January 5, 2017. The dismissal came on the same day that the employee subpoenaed Lallier and Reed, as well as documents from General Motors. The Fayetteville Observer filed a motion in Darlington County Court on January 12, 2017, to challenge the gag order that had been put in place. Michael Adams, the Executive Editor of the Fayetteville Observer stated, “we believe that the public has a significant interest in this case and that we have a responsibility to use all means to seek information about it, including seeking remedies in the court system.”
A six-person protest took place outside the dealership on January 25, 2017. One of the protestors carried a sign that said, “Rich White Guys Walk.” Two days later, on January 27, the fired employee again filed suit against Lallier and the dealership in Cumberland County. This time the suit alleged that Lallier had sexual relationships with male employees over a long period of time and that the dealership had been aware. The suit also sought several hundred thousand dollars in damages.
After medical issues delayed the situation, Judge Henderson, who had previously issued the gag order, was finally able to hold a hearing on the Fayetteville Observer’s motion to lift the order. During the hearing, the prosecutor, Sherrie Baugh, explained that the gag order had originally been placed at her request and that she no longer felt that it was necessary. Judge Henderson eventually lifted the order completely and the Fayetteville Observer’s Michael Adams once again spoke out, saying, “The Observer contested the gag order because we believe that secret proceedings cause real harm to the people in our community, who have a legitimate interest in seeing the Lallier case play out in public.”
The civil suit filed by the former employee was settled in March, after both sides went through mediation for an undisclosed amount of money. The details of the civil case remain under seal. The Fayetteville Observer is continuing the search for information in the criminal case. More motions have been filed to gain access to search warrants and affidavits from the investigation. The criminal case is still pending.
As the case unfolded, it was not surprising that most people thought the gag order had been requested by Mike Lallier’s legal team.
The facts and characters in this case are reminiscent of a cheap television drama. The case does, however, raise serious questions about the flow of information to the public in both civil and criminal matters. It also provides an opportunity to think about how the public analyzes the information it receives. As the case unfolded, it was not surprising that most people thought the gag order had been requested by Mike Lallier’s legal team. The protestors at the dealership clearly felt that Lallier’s money was buying him some form of an advantage.
The gag order seemed to present the following question: if more information was available would it have benefited the public? The information almost certainly would have been to the public’s benefit when considering the public’s interest in ensuring that even wealthy individuals like Mike Lallier are prosecuted in the same manner as everyone else. To this point, the Fayetteville Observer has been careful with the information they have released on the civil side.
The paper has also been open about their reasons for referring to the employee as John Doe. Protecting the identity of informers and juvenile victims is a reasonable and noble policy even if it invariably contradicts the public’s necessity for the most information available. On the other hand, having the media as a means to protect the public from secretive government behavior makes the argument for the paper’s interference in the criminal matter all the more compelling.
While our justice system operates on the principle that everyone is innocent until proven guilty and a court may have legitimate concerns about a defendant’s ability to obtain a fair trial, open court proceedings maintain the public’s trust in an equal system. Justice Louis Brandeis may have explained this idea best when he said, “Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.”