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Easley Asks State Ag Commissioner To Step Down

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RALEIGH, N.C. — State Agriculture Commissioner Meg Scott Phipps is coming under increased political pressure after two of her former aides pleaded guilty in a campaign finance scandal. Now, Gov. Mike Easley is calling for Phipps to resign.

Easley had a telephone conversation with Phipps Tuesday and later wrote a letter, asking her to step down.

"As public officials, we are keepers of the public trust and must be held to the highest standards. I am also a strong believer in due process. With these principles in mind, it is my judgment that it will best serve the state if you resign your office. I do not come to the decision lightly, particularly in view of your family's long tradition of public service," he wrote in the letter.

As Phipps serves as the chief lobbyist for farmers and agriculture interests, Easley now say financial fraud and extortion guilty pleas by Phipps' former top aides Linda Saunders and Bobby McLamb killed what credibility the commissioner had left.

"Whether there are grand juries or criminal indictments and these sorts of things, the credibility of the office begins to hurt and that hurts the agriculture and it hurts the state, and we're rapidly reaching the point where something has to happen," Easley said. "Whether there are indictments or not, we can't go forward and make a lot of progress if there's going to be the scandal of the day coming out of the Department of Agriculture.

Phipps released a statement through her attorney, Roger Smith. In it she said, "I have enormous respect for Gov. Easley. But, I was elected by the people of North Carolina and I will let the people of North Carolina decide."

Smith would not say whether that meant she was refusingto resign.

Rep. Frank Mitchell, R-Iredell, said Phipps' credibility level is down to about zero and for the sake of farmers, not politics, Phipps needs to resign.

"If it were a partisan issue, Republicans would be better off to leave her in office right up until next election because it would be a key campaign issue," he said. "I don't know of anyone that wants to listen to a commissioner with all these indictments just hanging over her head waiting to come and get her."

House Agriculture Committee chairman Dewey Hill proves it is not just the GOP calling for a change.

"I think she's lost her effectiveness and I don't think she'll be able to do the job she was elected to do," he said. "I think for the sake of the party and the industry, she needs to maybe make a decision."

State Democratic Party chairperson Barbara Allen released a statement, saying she suggests Phipps "stronglyconsider" the words of Gov. Easley, the state's ranking Democrat.

Phipps was out of town Tuesday and WRAL was unable to contact her. To date, she has said she will not resign and plans to seek re-election.

If Phipps decides to step down, some names are already being thrown around for her replacement. Norris Tolson ran against Phipps in 2000 and he is currently the state's revenue secretary. He is also a former secretary for the DOT.

Another possibility is Sen. Charlie Albertson, who represents Harnett, Sampson and Duplin counties. He also chairs the Agriculture committee.


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