Submitted to VT by the Washington Post
The Washington Post’s Desmond Butler reports: It was a curious time for Sonny Perdue to close a real estate deal. In February 2017, weeks after President Donald Trump selected him to be agriculture secretary, Perdue’s company bought a small grain plant in South Carolina from one of the biggest agricultural corporations in America.
An examination of public records by The Washington Post has found that the agricultural company, Archer-Daniels-Midland (ADM), sold the land at a small fraction of its estimated value just as it stood to benefit from a friendly secretary of agriculture.
Jackie Anderson, a spokeswoman for Chicago-based ADM, denied that the company sold the property at a discount, saying that ADM began negotiations with Perdue’s former company, AGrowStar, in 2015 — well before Trump was elected — and could not find another buyer.
The Post constructed a 3-D model of the property using footage from drone flights over the two most valuable parcels in February.
- Danny Brown, the former president of AGrowStar, confirmed negotiations began in late 2015. But Brown said ADM wanted $4 million for the plant — 16 times what Perdue’s company ultimately paid for it. The timing of the sale just as Perdue was about to become the most powerful man in U.S. agriculture raises legal and ethics concerns, from the narrow question of whether the secretary followed federal financial disclosure requirements to whether the transaction could have been an attempt to influence an incoming government official, in violation of bribery statutes, ethics lawyers say.
- Public officials are barred from accepting anything of value if the benefit is given “with intent to influence.” ADM sold the plant in Estill, S.C., to Perdue’s then-company, AGrowStar, for $250,000 — a fraction of what county and independent appraisers say it is worth. Six years earlier, ADM had paid more than $5.5 million for the same land, a figure that closely matches assessments by independent experts contacted by The Post, who analyzed the value based on state records and drone footage of the property.
- Months after Perdue took over the U.S. Department of Agriculture, his family trust sold AGrowStar to a group of investors along with all of its real estate for an undisclosed amount. According to Brown, AGrowStar sold for about $12 million. The real estate sales illustrate the limits of the financial disclosure rules intended to reveal potential conflicts of interest before confirmation.
- The sale of Perdue’s company was also obscured by complex financial moves that appear to have evaded at least the spirit of an agreement Perdue made with the U.S. Office of Government Ethics, according to Walter Shaub, who led the agency at the time.