Agriculture staff warm to Phipps (05/22/2003)

Staff WriterMay 22, 2003 

RALEIGH -- Agriculture Commissioner Meg Scott Phipps took the stage Wednesday at the State Fairgrounds and told hundreds of her employees the same thing she told the governor last week: that her department is working as hard as ever and that she will not quit.

A week after Gov. Mike Easley asked her to resign, saying she could no longer represent farmers effectively because of an FBI investigation into her campaign finances, Phipps stood in front of a crowd of cheering employees in the Kerr Scott building.

"Somebody said last week that we haven't been very effective," Phipps said. "I think someone doesn't know much about what we've been doing."

Since March, two of Phipps' closest campaign aides have been indicted for federal campaign finance violations including extortion and fraud, and the FBI's investigation continues.

The governor, a fellow Democrat, along with several other high-ranking members of her party have said Phipps can no longer properly manage the 1,255-employee Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

The governor's office said Wednesday that Easley's request still stands and would not respond to Phipps' comments. "His letter calling for her resignation speaks for itself," spokesman Ernie Seneca said.

But state workers who gathered for an annual employee appreciation day -- in a building named for Phipps' grandfather, a former agriculture commissioner and governor -- saw a woman still firmly committed to her job.

Phipps told workers that when Easley called last week to ask her to quit, she used the opportunity to brag about their hard work.

She ticked off accomplishments such as the formation of a task force to curb terrorist threats to the state's food supply, a group created to give cash-strapped farmers financial advice, and a program that helped drought-stricken farmers get hay for their cattle.

She ended her remarks with a promise.

"They tell you you don't know how strong the tea is until you put it in hot water," Phipps said. "I'll be hanging in there because I know I've got y'all behind me."

The crowd rose to give her a standing ovation.

"Everybody makes mistakes," said Jerry Butler, who has worked 18 years in the department's Standards Division. "You can look around and tell that folks like her. I just wish they'd leave her alone and let her do her job."

Since the governor's blunt demand for her to step down, Phipps has been touring farms in the distant corners of the state, far from the turmoil surrounding her in Raleigh.

But on Wednesday, Phipps seemed to relish the spotlight as she handed out dozens of awards for service, dedication and teamwork and posed for pictures with grinning employees.

When she wasn't on stage, she cruised the room, laughing and hugging staff members, inquiring about their families and complimenting their work.

Employees greeted her warmly as they snacked on Bojangles' biscuits and Krispy Kreme doughnuts, accepted door prizes and played bingo. If any were talking about their boss's legal and political troubles, they kept it well hidden.

Othell Price, an administrative assistant who has spent 41 years in the department, said the employee appreciation party this year was as well-attended as ever.

"We're supporting our commissioner," Price said.

Several employees said Phipps is a warm-hearted boss and that their support for her has not wavered.

Thomas W. Ellis III, director of aquaculture and natural resources, said Phipps is still working hard for farmers and has support in farm communities all over the state.

When the governor demanded Phipps' resignation, Ellis said, "It made me more determined to make sure our department is seen for all the good things it's doing."

Staff writer Kristin Collins can be reached at 829-4881 or kcollins@newsobserver.com.

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