Judge: Phipps Likely To Serve State, Federal Sentences Simultaneously
Posted November 13, 2003 10:16 a.m. EST
RALEIGH, N.C. — A Wake County judge on Wednesday postponed the sentencing of former state Agriculture Commissioner Meg Scott Phipps on state charges of perjury and obstruction of justice, but said he likely would order a sentence that runs simultaneously with any federal time she receives.
Phipps' lawyers asked Superior Court Judge Donald Stephens to delay the hearing until Phipps is sentenced in federal court, tentatively scheduled for March 1, 2004. A new hearing on the state charges is scheduled for March 8, 2004.
Stephens agreed to release Phipps from jail until the hearing. Phipps had been jailed since Oct. 30, after she was convicted by a Wake County jury.
In a statement prior to the action taken by Stephens, a humbled Phipps addressed the court.
"I am truly sorry that I have brought this sadness and this grief to my family, but also to the people of North Carolina, which I consider my family. I want to say that I do accept full responsibility for my actions," she said.
"Given what happened in federal court on Monday with a plea of guilty, I think Judge Stephens' decision was wise and appropriate. He has wide discretion and I think he used it very judiciously," said Colon Willoughby, Wake County district attorney.
Phipps' attorneys said their client is stoic and philosophical about the possibility of federal prison time.
"This, too, shall pass and she can do it. She's done a lot of things in her life," said Wade Smith, Phipps' attorney. "She's a very courageous woman and she can handle it."
Phipps, 47, was convicted of the state charges and pleaded guilty to five federal charges, including extortion, after an investigation into her campaign finances. During her state trial, former aides testified that Phipps took boxes and envelopes of illegal cash campaign contributions from carnival companies interested in doing business at the State Fair.
Phipps, a former administrative law judge elected agriculture commissioner in 2000, later awarded fair contracts to some of those companies.
Following her two-week trial and conviction, Stephens lectured Phipps on her failures to uphold the duties of her office and profession, then ordered her held without bail pending sentencing.
At the time, Stephens said Phipps had "done great harm" to her profession and the people of the state.
At Wednesday's hearing, Stephens referred to letters he received concerning leniency on Phipps' behalf. The judge read a letter from an anonymous couple and said the words captured public sentiment in the case.
"Her judgment appears to have been so poor. We do not know what the outcome will be; however, we hope she will receive a lenient, but firm sentence, perhaps extended community service to remind her what her calling was -- service to the people of North Carolina," Stephens read.
As a first time offender under North Carolina's sentencing guidelines, Stephens could sentence Phipps to a community service punishment and probation. The guidelines allow him to impose a maximum prison term between two years, three months; and four years, eight months.
On Monday, Phipps signed a plea agreement with federal prosecutors recommending that she spend five years in a federal prison. She pleaded guilty to five federal charges of extortion, mail fraud and conspiracy. In exchange for her guilty plea, prosecutors dropped 25 other federal charges.
In delaying Phipps sentencing, Stephens has essentially turned the case over to a federal judge. He indicated whatever sentence he gives Phipps will run concurrently with the federal sentence.
"She was thankful the hearing went the way it did and is relieved she will have a little time now with the children before she has to do other things. For her it was a better moment than some of the moments she's had in the past three or four weeks," attorney Wade Smith said.
After Phipps' release, she said she looked forward to seeing her children before heading to her Alamance County home.
Phipps, the daughter and granddaughter of governors, resigned from office in June after several top aides were indicted by a federal grand jury.
All three of the aides -- Mike Blanton, Linda Saunders and Bobby McLamb -- pleaded guilty and testified against Phipps. They also await sentencing in federal court.