It’s a thorny issue for the businessman locked in a July 22 runoff for the GOP nomination. His appointment to the post in 2010 by his cousin, then-Gov. Sonny Perdue, raised suggestions of nepotism. Records obtained by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution through an open records request paint an even more complicated portrait, showing that a trucking company purchased by both Perdues hauled cargo at the port while David was on the board making important decisions about the port’s operation.
The Perdue campaign said the conduct was above board and contracts for the trucking work were not with the port, but with the companies and shippers moving the goods.
“There is no conflict. They did not do business with the port,” Perdue spokesman Derrick Dickey said.
But while on the board, Perdue took votes on tens of millions of dollars worth of infrastructure improvements designed to streamline and improve transportation at the busy gateway. They included $1.5 million to pave one terminal and $77 million for ship-to-shore cranes.
One watchdog said that’s problematic.
“In general, it’s something I would call a conflict of interest,” William Perry, head of Common Cause Georgia said. “His business is benefiting from votes he takes on the board.”
Officials serving on public boards in Georgia are required to file affidavits attesting that they have not taken any votes which affected their private financial or business interests. Perdue failed to file the required ethics disclosures while on the ports board.
When the AJC inquired about the issue in May, his campaign called it an oversight and filed the forms later that month. Each said that he had not engaged in any matters on the board that affected his business or personal worth.
“He is being completely transparent,” said Dickey, noting Perdue had released 10 years worth of tax returns.
David Perdue had recently departed as chief executive of the Dollar General chain of discount stores when Sonny Perdue — entering the final stretch of his second term in the summer of 2010 — tapped him to fill a vacancy on the ports board.
The job pays just $40 per day plus travel expenses on days that it meets. But it’s influence is vast. The board sets policy and oversees management of the quasi-state agency that rakes in some $67 billion in revenue statewide. And it’s viewed as a prestigious panel, where powerful Georgia business and political leaders rub shoulders. The chairman while Perdue served on the board was Alec Poitevint, former head of the state Republican Party who went on to manage the 2012 GOP national convention.
Just months after leaving office in 2011, Sonny Perdue and his cousin founded Perdue Partners. The company’s website describes it as “an Atlanta-based global trading company” that works on partnerships, consulting services and strategic acquisitions. Joining the Perdue cousins as founding partners were top aides of the former governor: his former top budget chief Trey Childress and Heidi Green, who ran the state Department of Economic Development.
David Perdue, whose current net worth is estimated between $12 million and $48 million, provided a sizable chunk of the startup’s capital. His Senate financial disclosure statement shows that he sunk between $300,000 and $750,000 of equity into the company. (The disclosure uses broad monetary categories).
The new company’s emphasis on global trade raised eyebrows given that David Perdue still sat on the ports board, and was chairman of the Ports Development Committee, which oversees infrastructure at the Savannah and Brunswick terminals.
The AJC also reported in late 2010 that Sonny Perdue, while he was still governor, met with ports officials to discuss opportunities for his private grain and trucking businesses at the port once he left office.
In December 2012, Perdue Partners acquired Benton Express, a family-owned company that began in Atlanta in the 1930s delivering movie reels to cinemas. The infusion of cash from Perdue Partners allowed the trucking company to replace an aging fleet of trucks. It now has 300 trucks and 20 terminals scattered around the Southeast.
In February 2013, records show, the newly-renamed Benton Global began hauling cargo directly from the port. Many of the clients are companies from China, where Sonny Perdue had contacts. Prior to 2013, Benton had contracted with Horizon Trucking to haul goods from the port to one of the company's terminals, Green said.
Benton’s website boasts of the connection to the Perdues and the ports.
“Benton is pleased to offer port transloading services just 3 miles from the fastest growing container port on the east coast — the Port of Savannah!” the site says. “We have a Terminal Manager and team in Savannah to assist our port customers.”
The site goes on to say that, “David Perdue brings not only experience from the retail industry but also served on the Georgia Ports Authority.”
David Perdue announced in March of last year that he was leaving the ports board to concentrate on his U.S. Senate bid.
Since February 2013, Benton Express trucks have passed through the gates at the Savannah and Brunswick ports 2,059 times, records show. Some of those trips have been to return empty cargo containers to the port after they were unloaded.
The trips also cloud another claim of Perdues on the campaign trail: that he is an exporter. At a campaign event in February, Perdue labeled himself “the co-founder of a small business here in Georgia.”
“We focus on exporting American products to emerging markets around the world. We bought a trucking company last year,” Perdue said.
But the records show that Benton hauled goods into Georgia, largely from Chinese and Indian companies. That’s politically less popular than exporting American goods abroad.
The Perdue camp argues that the movement of goods from the port doesn’t qualify as importing. Benton doesn’t own and sell the goods, Dickey argued, so the company is not an importer or exporter.
"It's logistical support," Dickey, the Perdue spokesman, said. "It's not the same thing."