Local News

Interim Ag Commissioner Voids State Fair Contract

Posted July 1, 2003 5:45 a.m. EDT

— Interim Agriculture Commissioner Britt Cobb threw out the state's contract with fair operator Amusements of America on Tuesday

Cobb's decision comes after he was advised by State Attorney General Roy Cooper to terminate the contract.

According to a statement released by the State Attorney General's Office, "It is in the best interest of the people of North Carolina that the cloud of suspicion be removed and that the Commissioner void the current State Fair contract."

Amusements of America was selected by former Ag Commissioner Meg Scott Phipps to run the midway at the State Fair. Phipps later resigned her post after allegations involving campaign finance charges and illegal loan payments.

No one with Amusements of America has been indicted in the controversy, but the family who runs Amusements of America was named in indictments involving members of Phipps' campaign staff.

The New Jersey-based company would be unlikely to give up the contract for the State Fair, which opens Oct. 17, without a fight. Last year, Amusements of America took in $2.4 million from rides alone and likely made tens of thousands more from games and food concessions.

Joseph B. Cheshire V, a Raleigh lawyer representing Amusements of America, could not be reached Tuesday for comment.

Cobb, who was appointed to replace Phipps, said in a release issued Tuesday that he intends to have a carnival operator selected by July 31 using a new bidding process that will start Monday. Operators will have until July 25 to submit their bids.

Federal investigators began an investigation of the 2000 Phipps campaign several months ago. The most recent indictment, of Deputy Commissioner Mike Blanton on June 6, prompted the resignations of both Blanton and Phipps.

The indictments alleged that Amusements of America and several other carnival companies funneled thousands of dollars to the Phipps campaign and that an Amusements official participated in high-level department meetings, paid for trips for Phipps and helped in the selection of the midway company.

The state's contract with Amusements of America has a clause requiring that "Amusements shall comply with all federal, state and local laws, rules and ordinances, and shall require the same compliance by its sublessees, assigns, agents, employees and invitees, and all other persons over whom Amusements has authority to control."

According to Blanton's indictment, at least three other carnival companies -- Fair Management Inc. of Florida and Jenks Concessions and Smokey Mountain Amusements, both based in North Carolina -- also made illegal contributions.