‘Odom Was Ill And Unable To Comment’

So says the Times-Picayune’s writeup of the $63 million toll for the long-time Louisiana Commissioner of Agriculture’s boondoggle of a sugar mill in Lacassine.

The sugar mill was supposed to be a perfect example of public-private partnerships at work. And it was, for which we might thank Bob Odom. Except nobody’s going to be too appreciative for this…

The state spent $63.5 million on a failed sugar cane mill in southwest Louisiana, including $6.4 million in salaries for Department of Agriculture and Forestry employees who built the plant, the legislative auditor said Monday. Auditor Darryl Purpera’s report said the mill in Lacassine in Jefferson Davis Parish — along with an $8.5 million rail line built to ship cane from Lake Charles to Baldwin — brought the bill to $72 million — with the state getting little for its investment.

Even though the line was later shortened to drop the cane at the Lacassine mill, it was a financial failure, the auditor said.

“It appears that the payments made by the state to address the sugar cane farmers’ needs were not commensurate with the value received,” the auditor’s report said.

The report said the mill, which has been idle for about four years, was built for a group of cane farmers that never numbered more than 30. Odom had contended there were no cane mills within 100 miles of the region and that the mill would pay for itself.

The mill was originally budgeted in 2003 for $45 million through revenue bonds secured by slot machine proceeds dedicated to the Louisiana Agricultural Finance Authority. Revenue from the mill was supposed to pay off the bonds. To date, LAFA and the state have made all of the $28.8 million in principal payments due on the bonds, the report said.

After the mill overshot its original $45 million budget, Odom used non-Civil Service employees from this agency to help build the plant.

The auditor said the use of another $650,000 in agriculture department money could not be determined because of a lack of documentation. The agency also spent an additional $383,299 on construction cost overruns, the report said.

Odom lost his 2007 re-election bid to current commissioner Mike Strain, in no small part because by that point the scale of Odom’s stupidity and corruption in building the sugar mill was too obvious to ignore.

But back then the true scale of the disaster wasn’t quite known – because Odom had cut a deal to at least temporarily offload the boondoggle to the Colombians…

In 2006, the mill was sold to Lake Charles Cane-Lacasinne Mill LLC by the Agriculture Department in an all-financed deal with no cash changing hands. Lake Charles Cane is controlled by a Colombian company, Cementos Andinos SA, which also agreed to build an ethanol plant at the site. That plant has not been built, and Lake Charles Cane was officially put in default by the LAFA on March 23 after missing its Dec. 31 loan payment.

No word on the approval of a reported plan for Cementos Andinos to pay off the note in hookers from Cartagena. That deal might have worked better when Odom’s buddy Edwin Edwards was governor; current market conditions are less favorable.

Strain has been left scrambling to find some sort of solution to this mess. Current rents from some of the facility space the state has been able to lease to non-deadbeats bring in about $70,000 a year, which isn’t much of a return on a $63 million investment, and Strain has managed to whittle the bond debt on the sugar mill down from $45 million to $16 million. He’s also managed to get the banks involved to eat about half of the loans to the Colombians; they now owe $6.2 million instead of the $11 million they owed before his involvement.

But the chances of getting those loans paid off or the bond debt covered by ongoing revenues are pretty slim.

We’re eating this sugar mill. To the tune of $63 million.

And Odom has nothing to say about sticking us with that bill, because he’s under the weather. Unless that means he’s on death’s door, in which case we’ll offer best wishes to him and his family, that’s pretty cowardly stuff. It’s not completely fair for Odom to bear all the blame for this disaster, as the clowns then on the State Bond Commission couldn’t muster a majority in opposition to a plan just about anybody could tell was going to end in failure.

But as said above, we should thank Bob Odom by learning a lesson from his irresponsibility and arrogance with our money – and never permit state dollars to follow boondoggles like the Lacassine sugar mill ever again.

That’s a lesson Republicans can learn as well. It’s not restricted to would-be Democrat princelings like Odom.



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