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Public Trust Could Be Worth Expense Of State Fair Legal Battle

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RALEIGH, N.C. — The state could be in for a costly legal battle, all in the name of restoring public trust.

The company hired to run the midway at the State Fair is preparing a lawsuit. The state dropped Amusements of America after it was caught up in a public corruption scandal that brought down Agriculture Commissioner Meg Scott Phipps.

The Agriculture Department hopes that come October, the empty midway will be filled with fair-goers who aren't thinking about the scandal.

Agriculture officials are trying to separate the fair from the scandal. But restoring the public trust could be expensive.

The free-for-all leading up to the 2003 State Fair is enough to make your head spin. Amusements of America was tossed off the midway after just one year. The state voided its contract after Phipps resigned.

The company is accused of making illegal donations to Phipps' campaign.

"The public has been well-served by the decision," said Bob Hall of the watchdog group Democracy South.

Hall said canceling Amusements of America's contract will help restore public trust.

"I think this is a better thing for the public -- not to even have their name all over this fair," Hall said. "Let's go to the fair to have a great time and not to be thinking about crooks."

Five companies have a shot at running this year's fair.

Interim Agriculture Commissioner Britt Cobb said all five meet guidelines about games, rides and safety.

Amusements of America is not one of the five.

"There's no question it is a legal decision," Cobb said. "There is no question it is a good decision because any of the five companies will be good for the fair."

But will it be good for North Carolina taxpayers? Amusements of America plans to sue the state over its canceled contract, and a judge said the company is likely to win money from the state

Hall said that is a small price to pay.

"Even if it costs them money in the end, for the sake of doing the public good, for the interest, we had to say no," Hall said. "This is a bogus contract."

Sealed bids for the new fair contract will be delivered to the fairgrounds on Wednesday. The Agriculture Department will open them and award the midway contract to the company who pays the highest price per visitor.

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