Former ag commissioner aide enters plea agreement

Mike Blanton, a former deputy commissioner, pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to obstruct justice. Blanton withdrew an earlier not guilty plea to 10 criminal charges.

In exchange for the plea agreement, Blanton must cooperate with federal investigators and testify against Phipps if he’s called, said his attorney, Sam Currin, in published reports. He waived some of his rights and agreed to a polygraph test if prosecutors request it.

Blanton originally faced a maximum prison term of 65 years and $2.5 million in fines. He now faces a maximum of five years in prison. Sentencing was set for Jan. 5.

Phipps resigned just hours after Blanton was indicted. Federal and state prosecutors have charged her in the campaign finance probe.

Two former Phipps’ aides, Bobby McLamb and Linda Saunders have also pleaded guilty to federal charges, including extortion and await sentencing.

The case centers on the awarding of the North Carolina State Fair contracts to carnival companies. Prosecutors allege that Phipps and her aides solicited illegal contributions from the companies in exchange for awarding the contracts.

Phipps has pleaded not guilty to state perjury and obstruction of justice charges. She has not entered a plea to 28 federal charges brought against her.

Federal indictments allege that Phipps received thousands of dollars in illegal campaign contributions, some of it funneled through a middleman and others given to her.

After Phipps resigned in June, the state department of agriculture canceled a contract for Carnival Company Amusements of America to run the state fair.

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