RALEIGH, N.C. — State Agriculture Commissioner Meg Scott Phipps said she will not resign, following requests from Gov. Mike Easley asking that she step down from office.
Phipps said she was elected by the people and she will let them decide her fate. The fallout comes after a criminal investigation into Phipps' campaign finances. Bobby McLamb and Linda Saunders, two of her former aides, pleaded guilty for their roles in her campaign finances.
The state's top Democrat, Gov. Mike Easley, sent a letter to Phipps on Tuesday asking her to resign, and state Democratic Party Chair Barbara Allen said the governor's request should be considered.
The situation brought the governor to ask for Phipps' resignation.
"I thought it was in the best interest for the state of North Carolina and agriculture for Commissioner Phipps to step down," Easley said. "I have no one else in mind for this position. I just want to see full and complete attention to agriculture in North Carolina and it can't be done under the current circumstances."
Phipps is the daughter and granddaughter of North Carolina governors. Her father, former Gov. Bob Scott, said he called Easley and told him he has no right to ask Phipps to resign. His call came after Easley's second request for her to step down. State Democratic Party chair Barbara Allen said the governor's request should be considered.
Unlike some Democrats, House Speaker Jim Black backs off the governor's bold call for Phipps to step down.
"She says that she's innocent of any wrongdoing and until she's proven guilty, she is to be considered innocent," he said.
Former federal prosecutor Kieran Shanahan said if he represented Phipps, he would probably recommend she hang on to what political leverage she has left.
"I don't know all the facts, but in the general scheme of things, it's probably to her advantage to stay in as long as she can," he said.
Easley talked with Phipps by phone Tuesday before releasing a letter, calling for her resignation.
"I indicated to her that I was involved in these type of investigations as a prosecutor and as attorney general, and they were trending in the wrong direction," he said. "It was going to take much more of her time than it has in the past and be much more of a distration.
"Her initial reaction was she did not wish to resign. I think upon reflection as this investigation moves forward, she will probably reconsider that decision," Easley said.
Members of the state Senate and House Agriculture Committee took part in an egg toss contest Wednesday, where most of the talk focused on the controversy surrounding Phipps.
"I think from what the governor said that it is time to make some decisions," Rep. Dewey Hill, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee.
Under state law, the governor cannot remove Phipps from office. In fact, she can remain commissioner even if she is indicted.
Phipps would only be forced to leave if she were convicted of a felony or if she were impeached by the House. However, neither Republicans nor Democrats have suggested that.
Phipps learned of Easley's request on a business trip to western North Carolina.
"I think it's inappropriate and unfair timing," she said. "The investigation is still going on. I have maintained my innocence."
Money may be another reason for Phipps to keep her job the money. She still has campaign debt, and owes the State Board of Elections $100,000 in fines. She has also hired attorneys, so her $104,000-a-year salary may come in handy.