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Ethics Questions Dogged Agriculture Nominee as Georgia Governor

WASHINGTON — In Sonny Perdue’s telling, Georgians were growing weary of the corruption and scandals in their state when he took over as governor in 2003 — a time when he gave his own version of a “drain the swamp” pledge.

“My first goal as governor is to restore public trust in state government by changing the culture of state government,” Mr. Perdue told a leadership conference at Kennesaw State University in April 2003. “Our form of government depends on a mutual bond of trust between the people and their government. But people have become cynical about their government.”

But Mr. Perdue, a Republican who is awaiting confirmation to serve as President Trump’s agriculture secretary, became a target of frequent criticism that he was failing to honor his own ethics pledge during his eight years as governor. The criticism centers on the fact that, as Mr. Trump has, he continued to own or help run his family business ventures — four farming-related companies — while serving as governor.

Mr. Perdue is one of the last cabinet members awaiting Senate confirmation. No date has been set for his confirmation hearing; a holdup in the release of paperwork accompanying his nomination by the federal Office of Government Ethics has been blamed for the delay. The office must examine Mr. Perdue’s proposal to avoid conflicts of interest while running the U.S.D.A., as the department is known, which may include selling off some of his farming assets.

Before his tenure as governor ended in 2011, 13 complaints had been filed against Mr. Perdue with the State Ethics Commission, which on two occasions ruled that the governor had violated state ethics laws. The commission took the unusual step of fining Mr. Perdue while he was governor.

There were numerous other questions, including some about the role of Mr. Perdue’s personal lawyer — also a state legislator — in pushing a bill through the legislature that included a special provision that gave Mr. Perdue $100,000 in state tax relief.

And, when his tenure as governor was coming to a close, Mr. Perdue met with Georgia officials who oversee the state’s ports to discuss use of a terminal for a family business, according to documents obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Soon after he left office, in fact, he opened a new company that specialized in exporting products through Savannah.

“When you are a public official you are supposed to be acting entirely on behalf of the public and not for self-gain,” said Yasha Heidari, former senior legal counsel to the State Ethics Commission. “Looking at his record, as both an attorney and a citizen of the state, I had serious concerns.”

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