State Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain may have to spend the rest of his political career cleaning up a state agency left almost bankrupt by Bob Odom, his tyrannical predecessor. If there were ever a testament to the need for term limits for statewide elected officials, this is it. Unfortunately, state legislators don’t have courage to do what is best for the citizens they serve.
Odom held the ag commissioner’s job for seven terms, 28 years. And the trail of bad decisions and failed policies is endless. One of the worst occurred in our own backyard. It’s the ill-fated cane syrup mill Odom constructed at Lacassine. The Advocate this week reported the mill “built with state workers’ sweat” is headed for Peru.
The Louisiana Agricultural Finance Authority, which was controlled by Odom, approved construction of the mill in 2003 at a cost of $45 million. The final tab for the state is $72 million because of mounting costs through subsequent years.
More than 300 of the agriculture department’s 831 employees were used to construct the plant. They were shuttled from Baton Rouge to Lacassine by department planes, and even the pilots were required to do construction work. Most of those employees were inexperienced for that kind of work, and at least eight were injured.
Odom also used employees to renovate his headquarters building in Baton Rouge. One worker fell from a scaffold and landed on his head. The state by March of 2005 had paid $622,489 in medical bills and $172,381 in lost wages. A failed cypress mill in Tangipahoa Parish is also an Odom legacy. It was recently sold for parts.
With one exception, law enforcement authorities always looked the other way where Odom was concerned. Doug Moreau, the district attorney of East Baton Rouge Parish in 2002, had Odom indicted on 21 state charges. He was charged with bribery, theft, money-laundering and filing false public records.
Delays eventually led to a state district court judge in 2005 dismissing the remaining seven charges that had managed to survive earlier court hearings. He agreed with defense attorneys that the state had two years to prosecute and failed to do it.
Two statewide elected officials did have the courage to take Odom on. State Treasurer John Kennedy, with support from then-Gov. Kathleen Blanco, in 2006 helped kill Odom’s plans to build a $135 million cane syrup mill in Bunkie, three times the original cost of the failed mill at Lacassine.
The president of a private sugar mill called the proposal “Odom’s Folly.” The Times-Picayune told Blanco, “Don’t drink Bunkie Kool-Aid.”
The agricultural czar, despite his endorsement by the powerful Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association, finally got his comeuppance when he ran for an eighth four-year term in 2007. His illegal misdeeds finally did him in when he led Strain by only one percentage point — 41 to 40 percent. Odom saw the handwriting on the wall and withdrew from the runoff, giving Strain the job.
Strain wasted no time starting his cleanup of the 28 years of Odom’s shenanigans. The first thing he did was end the department’s use of nonconstruction department employees for major building projects. The department’s 24 operating aircraft were told to follow the same public disclosure rules required of other state agencies. Most are used to detect and extinguish forest fires. Odom had used them for personal purposes.
Legislators gave Odom authority to use $12 million in annual slot machine revenues at race tracks for any agricultural projects. Strain said most of that money is locked up through 2017 to pay for borrowing debt of between $97 million and $103 million for projects pushed by Odom. The revenues had been used for boll weevil eradication, and they are no longer available for that purpose.
The Legislature, with support from Strain, unanimously passed a law in 2008 that said the agriculture department would have to follow public bid laws required of other state agencies. Odom enjoyed an exemption from the law.
By the end of 2008, Strain had reduced the department’s 1,006 employees to 917. He also closed a department lab and a satellite office. However, as the latest news indicates, the cleanup will continue for years to come.
How did Odom get by with ignoring the law, thumbing his nose at governors, abusing his employees and living high at public expense?
Odom held his office so long he treated its as his own private domain. He was at one time the most prominent member of the Democratic Party in Louisiana and could help his legislative friends get elected and re-elected.
Sen. Francis Thompson, D-Delhi, was Odom’s best friend in the Legislature. Thompson has served as chairman of both the House and Senate agriculture committees during his 37-plus years in the House and Senate. In 2005, he called Odom’s agency the best-run department in state government.
The voters also share much of the blame for Odom’s abuse of his office. They read about his dictatorial behavior but kept electing him for seven terms. They even made him the leader in the 2008 primary when he withdrew from the runoff.
Odom is gone from public office, and good riddance. If we ever again elect someone like him for 28 years, shame on us.