New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson should be glad that he is negotiating for the renovation of the Superdome with Gov. Kathleen Blanco and not state Agriculture Commissioner Bob Odom. If Odom had his way, the entire team might be renovating the Dome themselves. Picture Benson operating a forklift, Coach Jim Haslett floating sheetrock and quarterback Aaron Brooks poring over blueprints. Then you might see how Bob Odom has been running the state Department of Agriculture & Forestry like his own fantasy football league.
It's not fantasy, however, to say that Odom is the most powerful man elected to state government today -- and maybe the most dangerous. During his last two decades in office, he has pressed many of his 1,066 state employees into department construction projects. Not surprisingly, some workers have been hurt, several seriously.
Odom's "sugar mill commute" is just the latest outrageous example. Since October, 312 of his 1,066 employees -- including the state veterinarian, environmental specialists and computer support staffers -- have been ferried by state airplanes to perform menial construction labor at a $45 million sugar mill that Odom's agency is building near Lake Charles, according to an investigation by The Times-Picayune. During a five-month period, eight of those 312 workers were injured on the job, including a pest specialist who missed six months of work after hurting his shoulder in a fall. Meanwhile, the cost of Odom's employment practices to the state's insurance programs has apparently never been calculated. Odom now says he will stop the practice at the Lacassine mill. That's not good enough. Legislative oversight over ALL of Mr. Odom's construction projects should begin immediately.
Odom also has been unable to document his longstanding claims that his employment practice saves the public money. "The biggest issue here is the unsubstantiated cost savings that have been claimed by the commissioner," says Charles "Chuck" Marceaux, chair of the State Contractors Licensing Board. There is also the matter of employee effectiveness and morale. Robert Boland Jr., attorney for the state Civil Service Commission, says it's legal for Odom to use any of his department's 819 classified civil servants for work outside their job classification as long as they volunteer for the work. "I have always been led to believe it was volunteer work I don't recall any employee calling me to complain about it," says Boland. That's contrary to the T-P's report of widespread employee discontent. Odom's construction and employment practices also have drawn legal fire from the state Legislative Auditor, the State Contractors Licensing Board, and the private construction industry. So far Odom has bested his critics in the courts, though appeals are pending.
Elected in 1979, Odom's sweeping powers include regulatory authority over every gasoline pump and grocery scale in the state. All are affixed with yellow stickers bearing his name. The chief source of his power has been his longevity in office and his stroke with lawmakers, who now must rein him in. Aided by the Louisiana Agricultural Financing Authority, which lawmakers created for him in 1983, Odom controls the issuance of bonds to fund his agency's construction projects, which range from office buildings to processing plants for Louisiana products. Odom then acts as general contractor, thumbing his nose at state regulators, public bid laws and private commercial builders.
In 2002, Odom became the state's third consecutive ag commissioner indicted on corruption charges. He allegedly used employees to build houses for his children and to work on his church. A state judge last month dismissed the last seven of 21 charges brought against Odom by the district attorney in Baton Rouge, ruling the clock had run out on the two-year period to bring the case to trial. The state has appealed. Odom's attorneys contend he has done nothing wrong.
We support the commissioner's right to the presumption of innocence. That said, the dismantling of Odom's political empire is overdue. Before the start of the upcoming Legislative session, expect to hear plenty about proposals to re-direct Odom's $12 million annual "slush" fund bankrolled by slot machine proceeds. That's not enough. Dan Kyle, a former state legislative auditor and an Odom critic -- and now the new deputy director of the Louisiana Republican Party -- says the Legislature should make it illegal for state employees to work on tasks substantially outside their job descriptions. We agree. We also would like to hear from organized labor, which has been conspicuously silent about Odom's treatment of state employees. The Louisiana AFL-CIO did not return our call for comment last week.
Like the private Public Affairs Research Council (PAR), we have long believed that the agriculture commissioner's office should be appointive -- not elective. Odom's tenure has only fortified our position. It will take a two-thirds vote of the Legislature to make that happen, but it must be done. Meanwhile, knowing that Bob Odom will NOT be involved in ongoing talks between Blanco and Benson over the renovation of the Superdome raises our hopes for both the team and the state.