N.C. ag commissioner resigns office

North Carolina Ag Commissioner Meg Scott Phipps resigned the elected office on the heels of the indictment of a third top aide. North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley named W. Britt Cobb Jr., a 30-year department employee and assistant director of the marketing department as interim commissioner.

Phipps is the scion of the prominent Scott family in North Carolina. Her father, Robert W. Scott, was governor and her grandfather, Kerr Scott, was a former state agriculture commissioner, governor and U.S. senator. She was elected in 2000.

Phipps' 2000 campaign and the awarding of the North Carolina State Fair contract have been under federal investigation. In recent months, two former top aides, Bobby McLamb and Linda Saunders, pleaded guilty to extorting money from carnival companies who wanted work at the State Fair. They agreed to cooperate with investigators. McLamb ran unsuccessfully for the post in 2000 and afterwards Phipps hired and later fired him from a top post at the department. Saunders was the Phipps' campaign treasurer and became her special assistant after Phipps took office.

The latest indictment charges Mike Blanton, deputy commissioner, with 10 counts, but also alleges Phipps played a role in the cover-up of illegal campaign payments. Phipps has not been indicted.

In her resignation letter to Easley, Phipps said, “It is now clear that it is in the best interests of my family, my friends, colleagues and the entire farming community, that I resign my post. I am grateful for the incredible outpouring of support that has come from people all over North Carolina. I am humbled to have served the people of North Carolina and proud of what we accomplished.”

The governor called the resignation “the right decision for the people of North Carolina and North Carolina agriculture. I will work to insure that the Department of Agriculture will run smoothly and efficiently.”

Larry Wooten, president of the North Carolina Farm Bureau, said the investigation had rendered Phipps unable to focus on running the department and applauded her decision to step down. He and others said the industry needs a strong leader who can represent farmers with policy makers and state agencies.

Phipps' time in office has been clouded by the federal investigations. While she has not been indicted, she is still a subject of the investigation.

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