09/09/04 — Again ... sigh: Another prominent official goes down

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Again ... sigh: Another prominent official goes down

For the second time this year, North Carolinians are seeing a successful and highly respected elected official facing the prospect of prison time.

The first was Commissioner of Agriculture Meg Scott Phipps, daughter of a former governor and granddaughter of a former governor and U.S. senator.

She is serving a four-year federal prison sentence after being convicted in state and federal courts for election law violations and other crimes.

Last week, recently resigned U.S. Rep. Frank Ballance Jr. of Warrenton appeared in federal court in New Bern facing corruption charges involving alleged diversion of hundreds of thousands of dollars allocated to a nonprofit foundation he created.

Ballance apparently is prepared to agree to a plea bargain that will result in active prison time, despite the fact that he is suffering from a gradually debilitating illness.

(Ballance’s son, Carey, a District Court judge, also has been charged with federal income tax evasion as a result of failure to report $20,000 he spent from the foundation to buy a Lincoln Navigator.)

An FBI official involved in the investigations of Phipps and Ballance decried the image their activities reflected on North Carolina. Their conduct has, indeed, been disgraceful.

Both Mrs. Phipps and Mr. Ballance are lawyers. Mrs. Phipps had the advantages of nationally respected and loving parents and grandparents and of having all the advantages of financial, social and political affluence. Indeed, her unabashed ambition was to someday become the third in her family to serve North Carolina as governor.

Frank Ballance grew up in one of the state’s poorer counties, graduated from college and law school and was elected to the General Assembly. He became one of the most influential members of the General Assembly. That perhaps was a factor in his being able to have funds appropriated to a nonprofit foundation in his home county to counsel victims and combat drug problems.

He subsequently was elected to the U.S. Congress, where he apparently was building a good name for himself.

Perhaps in Ballance’s case, he overextended himself — trying to preside over the foundation while tending to the demands of legislative and later congressional constituencies.

He plaintively admitted, “I’ve made mistakes.”

Both he and Meg Scott Phipps obviously made some serious mistakes. Ballance, like Phipps, probably will emerge stripped of his license to practice law and even of his right to vote — much less hold public office.

The people of North Carolina have to be sad about them.

But not for them. Both obviously are well educated, smart individuals who had enjoyed great success and broad respect. They were in positions to do far more for their people and for themselves in the years ahead.

Unfortunately, they must have fallen victim to the notion that they were above the law.

While their conduct does not reflect well on the state, it must be noted that the state and the federal government did not condone their activities. Instead, as a state and nation, we sent a clear message that even high elected officials in this state will be held accountable for their conduct.

That notwithstanding, the vast majority of the people in our state must question the need to “slap cuffs” on people who aren’t subject to violence or escaping.

In the cases of Phipps and Ballance, they arrived at court on their own volition. And neither, obviously, was likely to run away — certainly not very far.

Published in Editorials on September 9, 2004 11:14 AM