Debate rages on Phipps' fate (05/15/2003)

Staff WritersMay 15, 2003 

One day after Gov. Mike Easley and embattled Agriculture Commissioner Meg Scott Phipps went toe-to-toe over whether Phipps should resign, North Carolinians involved in farming returned a split decision.

Phipps backers argued that admissions of corruption by her former aides do not prove that Phipps has done wrong. She is not charged with any crime, they said, and she should be considered innocent unless proved otherwise.

And, her supporters say, the Agriculture Department continues to accomplish its job.

"The grocery scales are accurate, the food in restaurants is safe, and when you buy a gallon of 89 octane gas at the pump, you get a gallon, and it's 89 octane, just like the pump says it is," said Ossie Kearney, a Board of Agriculture member who tends cotton and tobacco and raises hogs, beef cattle, turkeys and a few goats in Snow Hill. "We're not asking Gov. Easley to resign because our economy is in such bad shape, or because he's such a bad race-car driver."

Others think Phipps no longer can represent farming interests. Phipps appointed two campaign aides, Linda Saunders and Bobby McLamb, to trusted positions in the agriculture department. McLamb and Saunders have pleaded guilty to extorting money from vendors seeking spots at the State Fair, along with other federal charges.

Easley, like Phipps a Demo-crat, called for her resignation Tuesday, one day after Saunders' guilty plea. Phipps, who was traveling Wednesday in Western North Carolina with her parents and could not be reached for comment, rejected the advice.

Phipps' critics argue that matters will only worsen as the federal-state investigation into her campaign continues.

"She has lost clout and credibility with public and with the legislature," said Dan Finch, a Nash County nurseryman who sits on the 10-member Board of Agriculture, which the governor appoints to advise the commissioner. "You've got to be respected and well-liked, especially at the legislature, where everything is cut, cut, cut this year."

As the daughter and granddaughter of former governors, Phipps entered office in 2001 with a bumper crop of respect. But her legal troubles have diminished her credibility on Jones Street, where the General Assembly has the final word on her budget and major new initiatives.

Phipps must play defense with lawmakers, according to Sen. Eric Reeves, a member of Phipps' State Fair Advisory Commission. The General Assembly must re-examine the State Fair contracts in light of the "terrible" guilty pleas, said Reeves, a Raleigh Democrat.

"There's a lot of things pointing in her direction, but ... , she hasn't been indicted, just a lot of stuff swirling around her. Until it's conclusive, I don't think it's fair to demand a resignation."

Constituents weigh in

Outside the legislature Wednesday, some of Phipps' employees downplayed the investigation's effect.

"Most of us don't have that much dealings with the commissioner on a day-to-day basis," said Richard Hoyle, a 15-year veteran and program administrator attending a department-sponsored egg-toss between House and Senate members behind the Legislative Building.

Tom Slade, director of marketing, said he was impressed that Phipps had been able to concentrate as well as she has for the past several months. Everyone in the department has been concentrating on their duties as well, he said.

"I'll be honest: We're just busy doing our jobs," he said. "Most of us are career employees. We've been here five, 10, 25 years, and we have plenty to do."

This time of year, farmers, too, have much to think about: clearing fields, preparing seedlings, nurturing crops already in the field and harvesting the first spring fruits, red-ripe strawberries. Several interviewed Wednesday said they knew of the investigation.

"I will say this," said W. Keith Hill, who with his family owns Hill's Peach and Berry Farm outside Smithfield in Johnston County. "I think she should resign, whether she's done anything or not, because of the damage the controversy has done to the state. It can't do the state no good."

Hill said he voted for Phipps but had lost some confidence in her ability to represent farmers.

Newitt J. Allen was applying fertilizer to combed fields of cucumbers and yellow squash along N.C. 55 near Newton Grove. He navigated an old Massey-Ferguson tractor between rows of young plants, never disturbing a single tender leaf. He's still working at age 73 and suspects that the money Phipps' aides squeezed from State Fair vendors is more than he makes in several years of raising row crops.

"Knowing her family, it's hard for me to believe that she's guilty of what they're talking about," Allen said. "But anything is possible nowadays."

Resign? Not likely

Stern words from the governor won't push Phipps from office, according to people who know her and her family.

The Board of Agriculture could call on Phipps to resign, but that would not be binding, Finch said. "I don't think it will do any good," he said. "It would be just another pin in the cushion."

No number of pins can move Phipps to step down, said Brad Crone, Phipps' adviser in the 2000 campaign. "She has that Scott streak in her, real strong fortitude, and she's not going to resign."

Staff writer Joseph Neff can be reached at 829-4516 or

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