Sonny Perdue’s land deal draws new scrutiny amid chancellor search

Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue talks about the Farmers to Families program at Flavor First Growers & Packers in Mills River, N.C., Monday, Aug. 24, 2020. (AP Photo/Nell Redmond)
Caption
Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue talks about the Farmers to Families program at Flavor First Growers & Packers in Mills River, N.C., Monday, Aug. 24, 2020. (AP Photo/Nell Redmond)

Credit: AP

Sonny Perdue bought a grain plant in South Carolina from one of the biggest agricultural firms in the nation at a small fraction of its estimated value shortly after Donald Trump tapped him to be U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, The Washington Post reported.

The investigation found that Archer-Daniels-Midland sold the grain storage facility in Estill, S.C. to AGrowStar, a firm then-owned by Perdue, for $250,000. Six years earlier, ADM paid more than $5.5 million for the same land, a figure that lines up with estimates from independent analysts who reviewed the records for the Post.

The report, published Tuesday, could further complicate Perdue’s ongoing push to lead Georgia’s higher education system. The Board of Regents last week voted to appoint an interim chancellor, temporarily delaying Perdue’s hopes of landing the coveted, high-paying job.

Perdue did not respond to repeated requests for comment from the Post, and did not immediately comment on Tuesday to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The former two-term governor was not required legally to disclose the deal, which was uncovered by the Post through a review of records.

An ADM spokeswoman denied that the company sold the property at a discount and said the negotiations were underway in 2015, long before Perdue was selected to join the Cabinet. She said the company couldn’t find another buyer other than AGrowStar, Perdue’s former company.

The Post’s report quoted experts who said the timing of the deal raised legal and ethical concerns. Georgetown University law professor Julie O’Sullivan, a former federal prosecutor, told the publication the deal “stinks to high heaven” and should result in an investigation.

“Only a prosecutor with the powers of the grand jury can find out, in fact, whether there was a quid pro quo that existed at the time of the deal,” she said.

Several members of the Regents, which oversees Georgia’s higher education system, declined to comment on the report.

Perdue has faced questions about his land deals before. In 2005, he signed into law a measure that allowed Georgia residents to avoid taxes on property sold in Georgia if they purchased similar land in another state.

The AJC reported at the time the provision was sponsored by a state legislator who had also served as Perdue’s personal attorney, and came shortly after Perdue faced a hefty tax bill for buying 20 acres of land near Florida’s Walt Disney World. The changes saved him an estimated $100,000 in taxes.

Perdue’s critics say the report is the latest indication the Regents should steer clear of appointing him as chancellor.

State Sen. Jen Jordan, a Democratic candidate for attorney general, invoked a letter from a major accrediting agency that has questioned the Regents’ selection process. She said the Post’s report, combined with the scrutiny he already faced, makes Perdue’s candidacy a “recipe for disaster.”

“The accreditation of our entire university system could be at stake if Perdue is appointed,” she said. “This is a gamble we cannot take.”

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