The names of possible replacements have been circulating since the governor called on Phipps to resign in early May. Easley did not say when he would name a permanent replacement.
“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,” Phipps said in her resignation letter to Easley. “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.”
Phipps is a member of a prominent North Carolina family. Her father, Robert W. Scott, was governor and her grandfather, Kerr Scott, was a state agriculture commissioner, governor and U.S. senator.
Phipps’ 2000 campaign for the ag commissioner’s post and the awarding of the North Carolina State Fair contract have been under federal investigation. In recent months, two top aides, Bobby McLamb and Linda Saunders, pleaded guilty to extorting money from carnival companies who wanted work at the State Fair.
McLamb ran unsuccessfully for the post in 2000. According to indictments, Phipps helped pay off McLamb’s campaign debt. Phipps hired him at the department and later fired him from a top post. Saunders was the Phipps’ campaign treasurer and became her special assistant after Phipps took office.
The governor called the decision “the right decision for the people of North Carolina and North Carolina agriculture. I will work to ensure that the Department of Agriculture will run smoothly and efficiently to serve the people of this state without interruption.”
Larry Wooten, president of the North Carolina Farm Bureau, said the investigation had rendered Phipps unable to devote the focus that was needed to run 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.
The 54-page indictment charges deputy commissioner Mike Blanton with 10 counts—one count of conspiracy; one count of obstruction of justice; two counts of witness tampering; two counts of making false statements to the FBI; and four counts of perjury in testimony to the grand jury investigating the Phipps’ campaign--but also alleges a cover up in which Phipps played a role.
In published reports, Phipps’ attorneys said her resignation was not part of a deal with federal and state prosecutors.
The indictment against Blanton alleges that Phipps helped plan a conspiracy to hide illegal campaign payments when a Raleigh reporter started asking questions about the payments. It details at least two meetings where Phipps participated in an alleged conspiracy about the payments.
The indictment says that Blanton knew the Phipps campaign was illegally repaying a campaign loan, that he helped alter checks to cover up the repayment and that he lied to the grand jury about Phipps’ knowledge of the payments.
Phipps officially resigned the Council of State post June 6.
W. Britt Cobb Jr. has worked at the department for 30 years and has served as assistant director of marketing since 1991.
“His knowledge and understanding of the agriculture industry and the inner workings of this agency will ensure that the Department operates smoothly and efficiently to serve the people of this state effectively throughout this transition period,” said Easley.
Five names have surfaced as possible replacements.
Among those are Norris Tolson, who is the North Carolina secretary of revenue; Oscar Harris, a Dunn, N.C., certified public accountant and former state senator who also raises tobacco and cotton in Sampson County, N.C.; Tony Copeland, a Raleigh attorney originally from Perquimans County; Charles Albertson, a six-term state senator from Duplin County; and Alice Graham Underhill, an attorney from New Bern and daughter of Jim Graham, who served 36 years as commissioner before retiring in 2000.
Tolson ran unsuccessfully for ag commissioner in 2000. Albertson and Harris have said they may run for ag commissioner in 2004. Underhill announced her candidacy for ag commissioner a day before Phipps officially resigned the post.