03/04/04 — Mrs. Phipps: Is four years in prison really necessary for her?

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Mrs. Phipps: Is four years in prison really necessary for her?

What happened in a federal court Tuesday was deeply distressing to any Tar Heel with even a modicum of tenderness in his heart, regardless of politics.

Meg Scott Phipps, the newest light in the brilliant Scott family of Alamance County, a family revered for generations, was led out of a Greenville courtroom on her way to prison. Her husband watched, and then he headed back home to their two children, ages 12 and 14.

Her crime was political corruption. She had been elected commissioner of agriculture four years ago, and she took money for her campaign illegally. Then Mrs. Phipps, a lawyer and former administrative court judge, tried to shift the blame to her underlings.

The justice system was not kind to her. A judge sentenced her to four years, and federal law provides for no parole. She must also pay a $25,000 fine, and when she gets out she must go on probation, but that is minor punishment compared to the time that she must spend in prison — probably in another state, away from her children and her husband.

Moreover, Mrs. Phipps has to live with the knowledge that she tarnished a unique reputation that had been built by her forebears.

Even her great-grandfather, “Farmer Bob” Scott, had served in the Legislature. Her grandfather was W. Kerr Scott, who was agriculture commissioner, governor and U.S. senator. As governor, Kerr Scott was responsible for the paving of thousands of miles of rural roads.

His son and Mrs. Phipps’s father is Bob Scott, who served as lieutenant governor and then governor, As governor, he helped form the current University of North Carolina system, a plan seen as a solution to the various state colleges’ bickering over funding in the Legislature.

Gov. Jim Hunt asked Bob Scott to take over North Carolina’s community college system in 1983, and Scott found himself in a second career. He headed the system through 12 years of steady growth.

Mrs. Phipps picked up the family mantle. She ran for the state House in 1992 but lost, and then she was appointed an administrative law judge. Eight years later she decided to run for commissioner of agriculture to succeed the retiring Jim Graham. Graham, a legend in himself, had been started on his government career by Mrs. Phipps’ grandfather when he was agriculture commissioner in the 1940s.

The Scotts are farmers, and it was their close association with farmers that helped them rise to the pinnacle of state politics. But by the time Mrs. Phipps ran, a statewide candidate needed a broader base of support than just farmers, and that is what brought her to ruin.

Campaigns are expensive, and hers borrowed hundreds of thousands of dollars. She found contributions from prohibited sources — such as State Fair concessionaires — irresistible.

It has happened to many a politician. Some have been caught and others have not. Many a Tar Heel justified Mrs. Phipps’ transgressions on the basis that such misdeeds are committed all the time and few of the guilty are punished.

That is true. Still, we cannot wink and turn our heads. If the laws are not enforced when they are blatantly violated, we will be reduced to chaos. As sympathetic as we may be, it is right for Mrs. Phipps to see the inside of a prison.

Four years, however, seems too harsh. A shorter sentence, along with the knowledge of what she has done to her own life and to her family, would be punishment enough.

Published in Editorials on March 4, 2004 11:33 AM