Local News

Former State Ag Official Makes First Court Appearance

Posted June 11, 2003 6:27 a.m. EDT

— A former state agriculture department official accused in a cover-up made his first court appearance in federal court in Greenville Wednesday.

Mike Blanton resigned his position as Deputy Agriculture Commissioner last Sunday after being named in a 10-count indictment.

The grand jury said Blanton lied to FBI agents and a grand jury about his knowledge of then-Commissioner Meg Scott Phipps' campaign finances and coached a witness to lie.

Blanton appeared Wednesday before U.S. Magistrate Judge Louise Flanagan, who spent 50 minutes reading the charges against him.

During that time, Blanton sat somberly at the defendant's table next to his attorney, Sam Currin. He had the document from which the judge read, and he followed along as Flanagan detailed the government's case.

Blanton is not accused of the extortion and fraud that brought down former Agriculture employees Linda Saunders and Bobby McLamb. He is charged with lying, altering checks and pushing others to block the investigation.

Prosecutors say he did it to cover up Phipps' knowledge of an illegal loan scheme. The indictments name Amusements of America in the conspiracy. Phipps eventually awarded the company with the state fair Midway contract.

After Wednesday's court appearance, Blanton and Currin addressed the media. They would not talk about details of the case, including allegations that Blanton had an extramarital affair with an unidentified official in the Agriculture Department.

"There is a lot of work that has to be done," Blanton said. "The overwhelming support I've received in the form of phone calls, letters, cards and personal visits to my home have meant a lot to me the past few days."

Now, as Blanton works through the legal and emotional hurdles of the case, he also must work out financial arrangements with Currin.

Flanagan ordered Blanton to start looking for another job.

As for what kind of job, Currin spoke for Blanton when he said: "Probably anything that pays."

Blanton's indictment last week was followed quickly by Phipps' resignation Phipps has not been charged. Blanton, the department's spokesman, was the third Phipps aide to be indicted.

Currin said Blanton maintains his innocence.

"We're going to just get to work and see what the government's case is all about," Currin said, "and we'll go from there."

Bobby McLamb, who joined Phipps' campaign after losing to her in the Democratic primary, and former campaign treasurer Linda Saunders have both pleaded guilty to federal charges, including extortion. They are cooperating in the investigation and have not yet been sentenced.

Blanton is accused of coaching Saunders to lie.

Blanton could get up to 65 years in prison and $2.5 million in fines if convicted of all the charges.

He was released on a $25,000 unsecured bond and had to forfeit his passport. Blanton will be arraigned later, when he'll have to enter a plea. No date has been set.

"It's been difficult," Blanton said of the recent scandal. "I wouldn't want to elaborate more than that."

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