Among the nation’s professions, few are as universally reviled as the carny. Not even the dismal reputations of politicians, lawyers or used-car salesmen can match that of the stereotypical midway barker, the yellow-toothed lowlife whose fast-talking come-ons and leering fondness for the illicit are the embodiment of every parent’s worst nightmare.

These days, however, the state Department of Agriculture threatens to out-sleaze even the raunchiest ride operator. First, Commissioner Meg Scott Phipps and her top aides went down in flames and are now under indictment for a variety of misdeeds related to the awarding of last year’s state fair contract. The Phipps gang apparently shook down fair operators for cash and broke a host of campaign finance laws in the process; the revelation that the boss had been boffing her deputy smashed even the average carny’s bad-taste tolerance barrier.

The interim commissioner, long-time department drone Britt Cobb, has vowed to clean up Dodge. Cobb canceled the contract of the company that produced the 2002 fair, Amusements of America, which was slated to run the midway again this year. Though the company was but one of many carnival businesses that contributed to the Phipps campaign, the tainted association offered excuse enough to kill the deal. In its place Cobb has vowed to create a process devoid of politics that will maximize the benefit to the citizens of North Carolina. And for an extra five bucks–look how easy!–he can try to knock down the pins and win that giant stuffed animal.

Given the fair’s dubious history, it should come as no surprise that Phipps’ fall from grace was but another episode in an interminable soap opera with no end in sight. Prior to her election, the lucrative fair contract had been the sole property of Strates Shows, a Florida outfit whose owners were chummy with her predecessor, Jim Graham. For more than 50 years, Strates was handed the no-bid contract, in exchange providing a fair that returned less money to the state than the industry average and was publicly panned as overpriced and underwhelming. For his part, Graham never pretended that the fair was open to anyone other than Strates, and few outsiders ever bothered to apply.

It may be that Graham and his henchmen never received so much as a candy apple in exchange for their annual gift to Strates. On the other hand, we’ll never know. Skimming kickbacks and favors off the top is easy in a business that generates huge piles of cash. Cobb himself acknowledged this indirectly when he unveiled his new and improved revenue scheme, which will yield the state a percentage of every admission dollar. Attendance will be easy to track, he noted, because ag department employees staff the entrance booths. Under the old system, in contrast, the state received a percentage of the proceeds from ride tickets, which the operator both collected and calculated. Guess how many ride tickets in the barrel, win a Bon Jovi poster.

Tying the state’s fair earnings to a number that can actually be verified certainly adds a measure of integrity to a system that once relied exclusively on the good graces of people with plenty to gain and no accountability. But if reform is Cobb’s goal, he’s got a long way to go, because the deck is still stacked.

After declaring the bidding open to all on July 2, Cobb set deadlines: Companies that wanted the contract had to notify the state of their interest by July 14. Within four days, he would sift through the list and determine which companies were qualified to apply; those who made the cut would then submit sealed bids, and the bids would be unsealed on the 25th. Whichever operator guaranteed to pay the state the most money per attendee would win the contract.

Producing a state fair presents significant logistical challenges, even with many months to prepare. Designing the site and otherwise attending to the thousands of little tasks that accompany any large-scale event demands careful planning and extensive background knowledge. To submit a bid within a week or two and then get everything in place by the Oct. 17 kickoff would require a Herculean effort, especially for an operator unfamiliar with the landscape. Any company that already had a template for the fair and could simply plug in the details (read: Strates and Amusements of America) would have a distinct advantage given the compressed schedule.

As if to emphasize the point, Cobb hasn’t been able to stick to his own relatively simple timetable. Sixteen companies wrote letters of interest by the July 14 deadline, but Cobb delayed his next move pending a ruling on a court challenge brought by Amusements of America. The list of qualified applicants wasn’t determined until July 25, leaving a week for the department to issue a contract that sets out minimum standards for the event, distribute it, take bids and then make a decision by July 31. That’s a mighty quick turnaround on a complex web of calculations that can mean the difference between profit and loss.

In all, nine of the original 16 companies are represented among the five applicants Cobb deemed worthy of submitting bids (two of the five combine more than one company). The missing include Amusements of America, which by all accounts put on the best fair the state has seen in years–underscoring the chronically weak performance of Strates. But if the company met Cobb’s vague criteria for an entertaining midway, it evidently failed some other, unspecified test. “Since we’re still in litigation with Amusements of America,” says agriculture department lawyer David McLeod, “we’d rather not comment at this time.”

Agriculture officials have pointed out that only Amusements of America has been cited for making illegal contributions to Phipps. That hardly absolves the other companies that donated to her campaign, at least one of which (Strates) bundled contributions from vendors and subcontractors in excess of the amount given by Amusements. Though he rejected Amusements of America’s request for a preliminary injunction to stop the bidding process, Wake Superior Court Judge Narley Cashwell said he found it hard to distinguish between the various fair operators when it came to questionable tactics. “It strikes me that no one could be given this contract under the theory that [Amusements of America] has done something illegal,” Cashwell said.

With Amusements of America gone, the door is open wide for the return of the old guard. Among the remaining contenders, Strates has other advantages besides familiarity with the event. The company has not adjusted its schedule from years past and would be in nearby Winston-Salem the weekend before the state fair opens, meaning its transportation and labor costs will be substantially lower than others’. Practically drooling with anticipation, co-owner Jimmy Strates told The News & Observer that “for us, it’s really, really easy.”

And department officials make no secret of their fondness for Strates and wistfulness for the good old days. Last year, after Phipps awarded the fair to Amusements of America, Board of Agriculture members tried to pull a palace coup and overrule the commissioner in favor of Strates. The State Fair Division manager, Wesley Wyatt, has run the fair since 1997 and has worked with Strates for almost three decades. In that climate, attacking Phipps for allegedly playing favorites, then eliminating Amusements of America from consideration because of its ties to the ousted commissioner, seems hypocritical and vindictive.

Lawyer Joe Cheshire, who represents Amusements of America, says the department’s actions lead to a simple conclusion: “The way it looks to my client is that it’s already set to give Strates the fair this year.”

Whether Cheshire is right or wrong will be clear shortly after this column hits the streets. But no matter who lands the contract, don’t bank on the fair to distinguish itself from previous shows. Agriculture department lawyer McLeod says that ride and admission prices will be locked in at last year’s level, so at least fairgoers won’t be paying more for less. But they’ll probably pay the same for less: Because the successful bidder will have to make up for inflating the percentage of the gate that will go to the state, it’s not likely to provide many rides or other amenities beyond the bare minimum set forth in the contract. Nevertheless, the department continues to insist, everybody’s a winner!

Cobb must know that the only way to completely remove politics from the equation is to hand decisions about the fair contract over to a neutral body with no personal stake in the outcome or personal relationships with specific contenders. That would not be the Department of Agriculture. Until that happens, the procedure for selecting the state fair midway operator will have as much credibility as a three-headed dog. EndBlock

Contact Burtman at burtman@indy