Beam: Odom left Strain ‘bloody mess’

By By Jim Beam / American Press

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 non-construction 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.

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Jim Beam, the retired editor of the American Press, has covered people and politics for more than five decades. Contact him at 494-4025 or jbeam@americanpress.com