Local News

Former Phipps' Aide Enters Plea Agreement; Others May Be On Hot Seat

Posted May 12, 2003 5:30 a.m. EDT

— A key player in Ag Commissioner Meg Scott Phipps' campaign scandal pleaded guilty Monday to charges stemming from Phipps' election campaign. Linda Saunders is the second former aide to turn state's evidence, and officials say their investigation is still not complete.

Saunders pleaded guilty to two counts of extortion, two counts of money laundering, one count of conspiracy and one count of structuring transactions to avoid federal currency reports.

Saunders is scheduled to be sentenced Aug. 18.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Dennis Duffy told U.S. District Judge Malcolm Howard that Saunders used money she extorted as a state official to pay off Phipps' campaign debts.

"The defendant provided the currency to a member of the Phipps family that was used to repay bank debts," he said.

Saunders, 43, had been charged with 17 counts, including mail and wire fraud, conspiracy, extortion by a public official, money laundering and structuring transactions to avoid reporting them.

Saunders left the courthouse without talking to the media, but her attorney, Michael Grace, said his client has agreed to cooperate with federal investigators, but no sentencing deal has been made.

"I can assure you that what my client has pled guilty to is not something that she did at her own instance," he said. "She had nothing to gain by structuring any transactions. I mean, it's not her campaign. It's not her money."

Saunders faces a maximum penalty of 90 years in prison and a $2 million fine. U.S. Attorney Frank Whitney said she will receive a substantially lighter sentence, but his office will not have a say about the judge's decision.

"Public corruption at any level of government is unacceptable," Whitney said. "Public corruption at the highest level of government, as here, is unconscionable, and we are not going to accept any level of public corruption and we are going to continue our investigation with the support of the FBI and SBI."

Former Assistant Commissioner of Agriculture Bobby McLamb pleaded guilty in April to extorting money from potential State Fair vendors and conspiring to commit mail and wire fraud. McLamb agreed to cooperate with investigators.

The Phipps campaign's efforts to raise money to repay debt are the source of Saunders' and McLamb's problems.

Phipps' campaign for agriculture commissioner left her more than $500,000 in debt. McLamb, who ran against Phipps in the primary before joining her campaign, racked up $100,000 of his own debt, much of which was paid by Phipps' campaign, the indictment said.

Phipps has not been charged. She has said she did not know that campaign funds were being used to help pay McLamb's debt.