Local News

Former Ag Commissioner Charged With Perjury, Obstruction

Posted July 9, 2003 7:37 a.m. EDT

— Former Agriculture Commissioner Meg Scott Phipps was charged Tuesday with perjury, obstruction of justice and other crimes.

A Wake County grand jury indicted Phipps on five counts, three of which are perjury-related. The counts stem from the state Board of Elections hearings, during which investigators contend Phipps lied to them. Phipps also faces an obstruction of justice indictment and a conspiracy to commit obstruction of justice.

"These charges arose out of a joint investigation of state and federal officials. The investigation is ongoing and it is likely we will present other information to the grand jury in the future," said Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby.

Phipps could not be reached for comment Tuesday. Her lawyer, Roger Smith, said Pipps would turn herself in at the Wake County magistrate's office Wednesday shortly after midday.

"She will be arrested and processed, fingerprinted and hotographed just like any other citizen," Smith said.

The federal investigation has already led to guilty pleas by two former Phipps aides on charges including extortion. A third Phipps aide has been indicted in federal court.

The investigation has focused on a state contract awarded to carnival operator Amusements of America and campaign donations to Phipps and others allegedly arranged by the company.

Phipps resigned June 6, the same day a federal grand jury indicted Mike Blanton, the third of her top aides to face charges related to the campaign finance scandal.

The perjury charges against Phipps could lead to a prison term ranging from 2 1/2 years to seven years. But with no prior record and under the state's structure sentencing rules, the charges would probably bring no active prison term.

The indictments allege that Phipps lied when she testified during an elections hearing last June that she was unaware of payments her campaign made to pay off the debt of aide and former election rival Bobby McLamb.

The state grand jury also alleges that Phipps knowingly helped aide Linda Saunders commit perjury before the elections board and submitted a false deposition to an administrative law judge related to a lawsuit brought by Strates Shows, which had held the State Fair contract for the previous 53 years.

The obstruction of justice charges relate to allegations that Phipps altered campaign donation checks to conceal illegal payments to McLamb's campaign.

Federal prosecutors allege that Blanton, Phipps' top aide, lied to FBI agents and a grand jury about his knowledge of Phipps' campaign finances, and also coached a witness to lie. The federal indictments also suggested that Blanton was motivated to hide the truth because he was having an affair with an unidentified Agriculture Department official.

McLamb and Saunders have both pleaded guilty to federal charges including extortion. They are cooperating in the investigation and have not yet been sentenced.

Messages left at the home of interim Agriculture Commissioner Britt Cobb were not immediately returned Tuesday.

Last week, Cobb voided the contract Phipps signed with Amusements of America. State attorneys recommended the action to "remove any doubt about the midway contract being procured by favoritism," according to an advisory letter to Cobb.