RALEIGH -- Former Agriculture Commissioner Meg Scott Phipps was indicted by a Wake County grand jury Tuesday on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice. A former administrative law judge, the third generation of a storied political family of North Carolina, Phipps could not evade criminal charges for what she allegedly did to perpetrate and, later, cover up a pattern of campaign irregularities and illegalities.
It seems far longer than just a few weeks ago that many were seeking to explain Phipps' reluctance to resign her post on the grounds that she was protecting her sole remaining bargaining chip for negotiation with prosecutors. But reality intruded. There was likely a deal or set of deals on the table involving her resignation and complete cooperation, but these almost certainly never included immunity from prosecution. The abuses in the case were too egregious, too close to selling the State Fair to campaign donors. Investigators could never have settled for a slap on the wrist. There had to be criminal charges.
The public isn't privvy to which deals were offered to Phipps, and which one (if any) she ultimately accepted. I would guess that the charges filed against her today were fewer than they could have been, and that perhaps her cooperation at some point -- no doubt after an infuriating period of Scott stubbornness -- played a role in reducing the legal blow a bit.
But there is still a legal blow. And given the evidence already made public, it was a blow that needed to be struck -- for justice, for the integrity of our state, and for the precedent that might deter future political miscreants. Simply put, no one has the right to sell or barter governmental power, be it the power to imprison, the power to tax, or just the power to award tax-funded contracts to carnival companies.
Few can reasonably feel a sense of victory or satisfaction here. A former governor of North Carolina has seen his legacy tarnished, if not squandered. Several lower-level employees of Phipps have already pled guilty to serious crimes. Promising careers have been cut short. More governmental resources and taxpayer dollars have been expended to investigate and prosecute those who should have known better, behaved better.
Nor is this the end of the story. There are other corners of the political world in North Carolina that appear to be shrouded in darkening shadows. Public corruption in our state is no longer a rare exception. It can be found in many places, in many offices, among politicians of varying degrees of experience and ideology.
I predict that we will yet hear more news reports of public officials being indicted in North Carolina. Hubris, ambition, power, and access to other people's money form a potent and dangerous combination.
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation and publisher of Carolina Journal.