Perdue draws ethics focus

His companies seek business with ports

In September 2009, Gov. Sonny Perdue and two men who run the governor’s trucking company met in the Georgia Ports Authority in Savannah with a half-dozen state employees.

The purpose: Grow Perdue’s private business.

“The governor wanted to know if there are any particular services which we feel could help them here,” wrote Chip Hawkins, a sales manager at the ports, in an internal memo dated Sept. 21, 2009.

During the past three years, Perdue and his companies’ employees have tapped the expertise of state workers at the Ports Authority and the departments of economic development and agriculture several times to boost the governor’s grain and trucking businesses, according to documents obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution through the Georgia Open Records Act.

The September 2009 meeting was the only one on record for which Perdue was present. But Perdue’s business associates have met with ports officials on at least four other occasions since January 2009.

An earlier e-mail by Hawkins, this one dated July 10, 2009, said of a meeting with Perdue’s employees: “Of course their main question was how they can become a player here.”

Bert Brantley, the governor’s spokesman, said Perdue is simply gathering information, available to any Georgian, for his post-gubernatorial business life and, his interactions with ports and other state officials are no different from those of any businessman seeking information.

“I don’t think you’ll find anywhere that he’s been given any preferential treatment,” Brantley said. “Ports [employees] meet with businesses constantly to help them grow their business. And the people running his businesses are actively looking for ways to grow, just like all small businesses in the state.”

Perdue’s mingling of public and private business raises ethical and conflict of interest questions, ethics watchdogs say.

State law regarding the conduct of a public official reads, “It shall be unlawful for any full-time public official who has statewide powers, for himself or on behalf of any business, or for any business in which such public official or member of his family has a substantial interest to transact any business with any agency.”

Big political imprint

Perdue’s influence on Georgia’s two seaports will remain long after he leaves office in January. The governor has appointed or reappointed every member of the Ports Authority board — something any two-term governor would be expected to do. Yet he even appointed a cousin, David A. Perdue Jr., to the board last summer. All appointees will retain the power to approve bids, contracts, leases and more into 2011 and beyond.

Perdue’s businesses “are laying the groundwork so that when the Governor leaves office they will be in a position to start up an operation,” Hawkins, the ports sales manager, wrote in an August 2010 e-mail.

Perdue is one of Georgia’s largest independent grain dealers, if not its largest. His companies, AGrowStar LLC and Houston Fertilizer & Grain Co., own grain elevators in Bonaire, his hometown, Davisboro, Rosier, Calhoun, Wrens, Fort Valley and DeSoto.

AGrowStar became a U.S. Department of Agriculture-authorized grain exporter in 2008.

The governor’s trucking company, Perdue Inc., owns 15 truck cabs and employs 15 drivers and hauls grain and other products across the region. The company was certified by the Ports Authority in May 2009 and this year is listed in the authority’s directory of firms seeking ports-related business.

A month before Perdue appointed his cousin to the ports board, an earlier appointee, Alec Poitevint, who chaired Perdue’s 2002 campaign, was elected chairman. And Jim Lientz, a former chief operating officer in the Perdue administration, was elected vice chairman.

Al Scott, the Ports Authority board chairman in 2005 and a former Democratic state legislator, said Perdue’s businesses could benefit from a friendly board.

“He can absolutely have influence without personally getting directly involved via his appointments to the board. That could create problems,” said Scott, a former state labor commissioner who began his Ports Authority service in 2001. “Insider knowledge is more of a concern than the board approving a project to build something that would benefit [Perdue].”

‘This is the Gov’s company’

Perdue and his grain and trucking partners began meeting with state officials — and started doing business at the ports — at least three years ago, according to interviews, database searches and e-mail messages obtained by the AJC.

AGrowStar president Danny Brown met with state economic development and agriculture employees in April 2008.

“Fyi,” wrote Heidi Green, then the state’s No. 2 economic development official, in an internal e-mail, “this is the Gov’s company.” Green, who has since been appointed by Perdue to the agency’s top spot, did not respond to a request for comment or to written questions.

At that meeting, the company wanted help with selling as many as 30 shipping containers of grain overseas.

“They have met with the Chinese and they have an interest in selling/exporting soft red winter wheat and soybeans,” wrote Adela Kelley, a project manager with Economic Development. Donnie Smith, then the governor’s agricultural liaison, was copied on the e-mail.

E-mails between Perdue employees and the state departments of economic development and agriculture underscore the governor’s interest in tapping the huge Chinese grain market.

“I am confident we will be able to assist them,” wrote David Bryant, the agriculture department’s international trade director in an April 2008 e-mail message. “I have already requested Chinese certification requirements from the USDA ... office in Beijing.”

Perdue also seemed interested in selling grain to Cuba.

“I have just spoken with the Governor about some other Company Business and he would like for me to apply for the trip,” wrote AGrowStar’s Brown in a March 2010 e-mail to a state official organizing the governor’s trade-development trip. Brown, according to documents obtained by the AJC, paid his own way for the three-day stay in Havana.

A promising meeting

Page Siplon, who heads the state’s logistics center, arranged a meeting in July 2009 between ports employees and Jake Redmon and Scott Jenkins, who work for Perdue’s trucking company. Redmon and Jenkins learned “what the requirements are for a trucking company to do business here [and] the credentialing process for both the company and the drivers,” according to an e-mail.

Redmon, the trucking company president, seemed excited about the many ways the ports could grow Perdue’s businesses. In a July 2009 e-mail to Hawkins, the ports sales manager, he wrote: “The opportunities seem to be great.”

Siplon called Hawkins, the port sales manager, again on Sept. 16 to arrange for Perdue, Redmon and Jenkins to meet the following day with state employees. They discussed trucking, warehousing, containerized shipments of grain and other port-related activities.

“Jake did send an e-mail following the meeting saying that the Governor was very pleased with the meeting and appreciated all the information which was shared,” Hawkins wrote.

Siplon and Adela Kelley, the employees in the state’s Department of Economic Development who met with Perdue and his associates, said in interviews that they didn’t feel pressured to help the governor. They added that the service provided Perdue and his associates was no different from the help they give to any Georgia company.

And Ports spokesman Robert Morris said Perdue and his associates “were treated as any other customer would’ve been. We are very attentive to all our customers.”

But Scott, the former ports chairman, said Perdue’s involvement with midlevel Ports Authority officials was “totally inappropriate.”

“If your customer is the governor, and he can determine if an expansion project or improvement project goes forward, it would, with most people, influence their decisions,” Scott continued. “It places undue pressure on the professionals to make decisions they otherwise wouldn’t.”

Violating the ethics code?

State ethics law says a government official may “engage in no business with the government, either directly or indirectly, which is inconsistent with the conscientious performance of his governmental duties.”

Yasha Heidari, a former legal counsel to the State Ethics Commission, said Perdue violated that code.

“Looking at the plain text of the law, he is engaging in business with the government, either directly or indirectly. I believe he’s doing both,” Heidari said. “When you are in a position of public trust, and when you have a fiduciary duty to the public, and when you are using your position for personal benefit, that’s when it becomes ‘inconsistent with the conscientious performance of his governmental duties.’”

Perdue’s spokesman said the governor was in Savannah on Sept. 17 on state business, adding that the governor was simply seeking information available to any and all Georgians.

When his term ends in January, the governor has said he will go home to Middle Georgia to run his businesses.

“He plans to go back to Bonaire and back to being citizen Sonny and do the same kinds of things he did before he was governor,” Brantley said.

Perdue’s businesses

Grain is big business in Georgia. In 2002, the state produced $160 million worth of corn, soybeans and wheat. Last year, it produced $428 million. Exports of grains and meal from Brunswick, primarily to China, increased 27 percent the last year.

Sonny Perdue, who bought his first grain elevator in 1976, acquired a grain company in 2000 and created AGrowStar, which has the capacity to handle 2 million bushels of grain, according to the company's website. AGrowStar and another Perdue firm, Houston Fertilizer & Grain Co., buy wheat, soybeans and corn from farmers and ship the grain to local food processors and a major exporter in Brunswick.

Perdue also owns Perdue Inc., a trucking company that he and his wife, Mary, started in 1993. The company hauls grain, paper and other commodities across the Southeast, its website says.

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