Former Georgia Gov. Sony Perdue, nominee for agriculture secretary, has long been considered one of President Donald Trump’s safe and uncontroversial Cabinet appointments in what has generally been a contentious process.
But thanks to a series of reports outlining ethical shortcomings dating back to Perdue’s eight-year tenure as governor, those days just might be over — though the nominee still appears no less likely to be confirmed.
Last week, the New York Times reported that 13 ethics complaints against Perdue were filed with Georgia’s State Ethics Commission during his time as governor. He was elected in 2002 and served through January 2011.
In 2005, Perdue was fined as a result of two of those complaints, one of which was the result of the commission finding that Perdue had not properly reported the use of a family-owned airplane for campaign-related trip. In the other instance, the commission found that Perdue had accepted campaign contributions that exceeded state limits.
The nominee told the Times that those complaints were technical and politically motivated, but the controversies from his gubernatorial tenure don’t end there.
As the Environmental Working Group advocacy organization noted in a separate investigation of the former governor’s time in office, Perdue also signed state tax legislation — backed in the state legislature by his personal lawyer — that gave him a $100,000 tax break on a land deal.
The tax break was among a laundry list of other “ethical lapses” the EWG outlined in its report. Others included Perdue taking “joy rides” in state helicopters, refusing to put his businesses in a blind trust and appointing political donors and business partners to lead state agencies and boards.
Colin O’Neil, the EWG’s agricultural policy director, described these lapses as running counter to Trump’s campaign promise to “drain the swamp” in Washington.
“I think the more that we learn about Sonny Perdue’s tenure as governor in Georgia, the more concerns and red flags are raised,” O’Neil told HuffPost. “To anyone looking from the outside, this is not draining the swamp, this is bringing the swamp to Washington.”
Perdue has yet to be confirmed as U.S. Department of Agriculture secretary, as long-delayed ethics paperwork required to begin the process of scheduling a confirmation hearing was only received by the Senate Agriculture Committee last week, almost two months after Trump nominated Perdue for the post.
Though not yet confirmed to lead the USDA, Perdue has already moved to appoint at least one long-time ally to a high-level position at the agency.
As Politico reported Monday, Perdue appointed Heidi Green, a former business partner who he previously appointed to a state government role in Georgia, as a senior USDA advisor in January.
And Perdue has already personally profited from the Trump administration’s action on environmental protection regulations, too.
The Daily Beast reported Monday that Perdue is already benefiting from the administration’s push to dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency’s Waters of the United States rule, also known as the Clean Water Rule. Perdue owns a grain manufacturing company, called AGrowStar, LLC, that fought the rule because the company believed the rule would increase its regulatory compliance costs.
According to the paperwork Perdue filed with the Office of Government Ethics last week, the nominee plans to place AGrowStar and his other business holdings into a new trust that “will not benefit me or my spouse,” but his ties to the companies still could, potentially, raise conflicts of interest as other family members could still potentially benefit from USDA or other federal agencies’ policy changes.
While these issues raise a patchwork of ethical concerns, Perdue continues to have a wide swath of support and it appears almost inevitable that he will be confirmed by the Senate.
In an interview with the Times, American Farm Bureau Foundation president Zippy Duvall, a fellow Georgian and a member of Trump’s agriculture advisory team, described Perdue as “as ethical as they come.” Other influential agriculture groups have previously signaled strong support for the nominee.
Key members of the Senate Agriculture Committee also seem unfazed.
When asked for a comment on the recent reports on Perdue’s ethics record, a representative of Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-North Dakota) pointed HuffPost toward a previous news release stating her support for Perdue’s nomination.
Two other committee members did not respond to a request for comment by publication time.
Perdue critic Jaydee Hanson, a senior policy analyst at the Center for Food Safety, believes the former governor will still be easily confirmed — perhaps as soon as by the month’s end.
“These are serious ethical lapses and I’m concerned about them,” Hanson told HuffPost. “I wish I could say these lapses are so awful that members of the Senate are going to stand up and oppose him, but I’m afraid most of them will say this is ‘business as usual.’”
For his part, Hanson is similarly concerned about the direction of the USDA under Perdue, which will likely face significant budget cuts to fund the Trump administration’s push for increased military spending. To date, there have been few indications of the nominee’s stances on critical issues like nutrition, food safety, environmental protections and farm policy.
“I don’t see in [Perdue] a concern for the environment, a concern for food safety or a concern for the poor,” Hanson added. “These are ethical lapses that get down to what I call a conflict of commitment.”
Joseph Erbentraut covers promising innovations and challenges in the areas of food, water, agriculture and our climate. Follow Erbentraut on Twitter at @robojojo. Tips? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.