Agriculture Commissioner Meg Scott Phipps shortchanged the state $9,940 in reimbursements for using a state vehicle during 14 months of commuting between Raleigh and her Haw River home, according to a report released Thursday by State Auditor Ralph Campbell.
Phipps' office incorrectly computed the mileage, and she reimbursed the state $1,200 rather than the $11,140 owed, the report said.
Agriculture Department spokesman Mike Blanton said Thursday that one of the department's staffers was responsible for tracking the mileage on the 2000 Dodge Durango. Before Phipps began using it in January 2001, that worker checked with state motor fleet officials, then mistakenly told Phipps that there were two options: signing up for a payroll deduction of 20 commutes per month --regardless of how many times she actually drove the 106-mile round trip --or keeping track of the actual number of miles. Since she was often out of the office on business, it made more sense to pay for the actual miles driven, Blanton said.
But under state law, elected officials who commute with state vehicles must pay for 20 round trips per month regardless of the real number, said Dennis Patterson, a spokesman for Campbell.
Phipps turned in the truck April 8, 11 days after The News & Observer asked motor pool officials for records on her use of it.
Phipps said Thursday that she quit using the truck because of the tight state budget. For official travel, the Agriculture Department was having to pay the state motor pool 38 cents a mile --too much, she said, given the cuts that the department is having to make.
She then asked an Agriculture Department auditor to determine what she should have paid, Blanton said. That auditor decided that she owed $4,190. Campbell's office disagreed, citing the 20-commute law, and two weeks ago Phipps paid the full $9,940, she said Thursday.
Blanton said the law wasn't logical, and the department was asking that it be changed.
In April, Phipps commuted just one day but had to pay for all 20, at a cost of $774, Blanton said. It cost her and the department $27,680 to use the truck for 14 months; if she had kept it through the end of her four-year term, the total would have been $86,000, not including gas, which she paid for almost entirely herself. "We've basically already paid for the entire truck, and if she had known when she took office that it was going to cost her more than $750 a month, she would have told 'em to keep the damn thing."
Patterson said the auditors thought Phipps' office had made an honest mistake, so they issued their findings as a "management letter" --a form used mainly to bring problems to the attention of department managers --rather than as a full-blown audit report. But, he said, elected officials should be aware of the 20-commute law and be held to it.
The mileage problem is the latest in a string for Phipps.
On Wednesday, a state administrative law judge ordered a temporary halt to construction of a chair lift at the Mountain State Fair in Asheville. The judge concluded that a firm that Phipps' office rejected for the project,which will also include building a similar lift at the N.C. State Fair,had good evidence that the selection of the contractor had been handled improperly. That firm charged that her office had picked a rival without properly considering the other two proposals, which both offered substantially higher income for the state.
Earlier this month, the Agriculture Department paid $50,000 to settle a similar case in which a Florida-based carnival company challenged Phipps' choice of a vendor to operate the rides at the 2002 State Fair.
Meanwhile, the State Board of Elections has scheduled a hearing next week on allegations that Phipps and a former political rival might have violated campaign finance laws, including breaking the limit on contributions.
Phipps said Thursday that she has made mistakes but that her various woes were also partly due to her gender and partly to news media coverage.
"I just think there are just a few good old boys out there who don't think that a woman should have this job," Phipps said.