Yet another land deal story clouds Perdue’s campaign for educational eminence
By Tom Baxter
At a charity roast several years ago in Louisiana, a former aide to Gov. Edwin Edwards recounted the problems Edwards had satisfying the demands of a Lafayette pol whose appetite for grift surpassed even the generous standards of that state and time. Finally, the aide said, a look of relief came over the legendary kingpin of bayou politics.
“I know what we’ll do,” the aide said Edwards told him triumphantly. “Let’s make him an educator!”
That line drew hearty guffaws from an audience which included the pol/educator in question. Listen and you will hear echoes of that laughter in the story of Sonny Perdue’s quest to become chancellor of the University System of Georgia.
If you remember Oaky Woods, or that $100,000 tax break for a Perdue land deal passed in the closing minutes of a legislative session, there’s a lot that will sound familiar in the Washington Post’s richly-detailed analysis last week of a deal which was consummated a few weeks after Donald Trump tapped the former Georgia governor to be secretary of agriculture.
Over the years, there’s been a familiar pattern: obscure chunks of land, complicated exchanges and, most consistently, the deal turns out very well for Perdue. In the latest version reported by the Post, Perdue’s company, AGrowStar, bought a soybean processing plant in Estill, S.C., from the agribusiness giant Archer-Daniels-Midland for $250,000, a small fraction of its estimated worth.
Perdue made the bargain-basement purchase shortly after he was tapped to head the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and sold AGrowStar, along with the property in South Carolina, not long after assuming the cabinet post. He wasn’t required to report either deal. The Post learned about the sales from Accountable.US, a watchdog group.
There’s a lot in the story about all the interlocking trusts Perdue has used to obscure his finances, and the lax requirements for reporting on transactions which could bear directly on a public official’s performance. This is also a story about the cannibalization of small-town America. The company which bought the property from Perdue sold off the equipment from the plant, including a single boiler which sold for $500,000, twice what Perdue paid for the entire property.
Regent politics is such an arcane subject that it’s impossible to say what effect, if any, this latest story will have on Perdue’s chances of becoming chancellor. Late last month, in an acknowledgment that it’s stuck over Perdue, the Regents named Teresa MacCartney interim chancellor. In the wake of Nate McMillan’s season with the Hawks, “interim” is a title of distinction in Georgia. But in this case it may only mean that Perdue’s allies, who are powerful, are buying time for the father of the Go Fish Education Center to realize his dream of improving the state’s higher education system.
Perdue told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution the position of chancellor was “the only job in Georgia I feel like I was passionate about and that I would accept.” Lest there be any confusion about this, it’s not an honorary position. It’s about a half-million dollar-a-year job, with lots of opportunities to make important connections, which throughout his career, Perdue has shown a willingness to exploit.
As governor, Perdue broke with recent custom and refused to put his business interests in a trust, and has continued to mind his business throughout his political career. It would be worth knowing how Perdue intends to square his interests if he gets the chancellor’s job. Would he still be free to do land deals on the side?
North Carolina is a cautionary example of what can happen when boards veer off into political agendas. After weeks of bad press, the trustees of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill threw in the towel last week and granted tenure to Nikole Hannah Jones, the author of the 1619 Project. These days, however, North Carolina’s university system is in a constant roil over one thing or another.
So Perdue’s political connections with the Trump administration are a question, but that’s not the first question we should ask about his qualifications to lead the state’s public colleges and universities. We should take that cajun pol’s words to heart: you can cash in big time as an educator.
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