Local News

State Election Board Denies Appeal; Ag Commissioner's Hearing To Take Place Wednesday

Posted June 4, 2002

— The state Board of Elections has denied an appeal from State Agriculture Commissioner Meg Scott Phipps to delay a hearing into her campaign finances. The hearing will take place 9:30 a.m. Wednesday.

Phipps asked the State Board of Elections to delay hearings because she claims one of her attorneys has been unable to prepare due to a family member's illness.

Phipps first made waves when she broke from a half-century of tradition and chose a new Midway operator for this year's State Fair. Now, she finds herself in the center of a campaign finance investigation.

The state Board of Elections has subpoenaed various people connected to her campaign.

"The public deserves the right to know what the truth is," said Gary Bartlett, director of the state Board of Elections.

Bartlett said sifting through the rumors and getting information from carnival operators have been investigative challenges. Once the hearings start, he said the board may offer immunity in exchange for the truth.

"If someone had compelling testimony that put the pieces of the puzzle together that we could get as close to the truth as possible," Bartlett said.

"This inquiry is going to be like a visit to the dentist's office. It's not going to be pleasant for anybody," political consultant Brad Crone said.

Crone helped coordinate Phipps' campaign advertising. He said he witnessed nothing illegal, but he said it was clear that Phipps and Bobby McLamb had an agreement.

"In return for his support and his assistance on the campaign, she would assist him in getting his campaign paid off," Crone said.

That type of agreement is common practice as long as it is done legally. A contribution of $4,000 or less can be made or a separate fund-raiser can be held specifically to retire another candidate's debt. However, there is no evidence that ever happened.

Norman Chambliss of Rocky Mount told WRAL that he co-signed a $75,000 loan for McLamb, an act he did not realize was a campaign finance violation. Chambliss said the Phipps campaign, with Linda Saunders serving as treasurer, has been paying off the loan to Centura Bank. If true, that is also a violation of the law.

"There is some early indication that some of that debt may have been paid off by the Phipps campaign," said Assistant Agriculture Commissioner Mike Blanton.

Blanton contends Phipps had few dealings with her campaign finances, but she now stands ready to correct any wrongdoing.

"She's not trying to hide anything and nothing was done intentionally wrong. This is a result of complicated campaign finance laws," Blanton said.

Still stinging because he claims Phipps owes him money, former campaign worker Paul Long has also been called to testify. Long showed WRAL an e-mail in which the newly elected commissioner explains that she was giving McLamb a job in the department because he raised over $100,000 and connected her to the fair industry.

"It's a sad day in North Carolina that agriculture has got to have leadership like it has now, which is nothing," Long said. "You never make agreements to offer people jobs in exchange for contributions."

The commissioner believes most of the criticism directed at her comes from her fair midway decision. She also thinks many people are uncomfortable with a woman running the department. Elections officials hope 2 1/2 days of hearings will bring out the truth.

Commissioner Phipps claims Long worked as a volunteer for her campaign and started criticizing her when he did not get a job in the department.


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