By TIM THORNBERRY
FRANKFORT, Ky. — In his heyday as a University of Kentucky (UK) basketball star, Richie Farmer seemed to be on top of the world. But after eight years in office, his tenure as the former head of the Kentucky Department of Agriculture (KDA) has come under scrutiny, since he departed in 2011.
Last week the state’s Executive Branch Ethics Commission leveled 42 ethics charges against Farmer, related to his days as ag commissioner. That is a record and it could cost him as much as a $5,000 fine per charge, according to a report issued by the commission.
The charges include allegations that Farmer handed out jobs to friends and had state employees performing personal jobs, such as building a basketball court on his property and even taking his dog home to Frankfort from the Kentucky State Fair in Louisville.
One of the charges reported by The Associated Press alleged he spent more than $30,000 to take visiting agriculture commissioners to “Millionaire’s Row” at Churchill Downs to gamble on races. Farmer also allegedly kept gifts purchased by his office for ag commissioners in other states.
Current Agriculture Commissioner James Comers spent much of his first year in office cleaning up after these alleged activities. He began by authorizing a complete audit of the department nine days after he took office. The audit, conducted by Auditor of Public Accounts Adam Edelen, released its findings last April.
“The report paints a clear picture of an administration that had no qualms about treating taxpayer resources as its own,” Edelen said in a statement.
Comer has been on a mission since to regain the confidence of taxpayers and expand the agriculture industry, and show how important it is to the overall economy of the state. As part of that mission, he has visited every county within his first year.
After last week’s Ethics Commission report, he said his department has invited a level of scrutiny never before seen in state government. “We have become a model of transparency and accountability. Imagine what we might learn if every agency in state government was placed under the same magnifying glass,” he said.
Comer said he is not sure the Ethics Commission is finished with its charges related to the Farmer administration, but that the commission’s professionalism enabled his department to continue moving forward while fully cooperating with the investigation.
In addition to the audit, Comer has taken other actions to return credibility to the office, including firing at least 16 political employees from Farmer’s administration and taking steps to improve transparency in the department – including publishing his official schedule and launching a new KDA website that details all expenditures.
He also ordered tighter controls on the department’s fleet, including GPS monitoring of vehicles, and cutting spending on the department’s motor fuel and pesticide testing laboratory amounting to a $400,000 savings to taxpayers this year, according to information from the KDA.
“By the issues on Farmer, people see the level of unethical behavior that we had here in the department,” alleged Comer. “We have made drastic improvements, and our work continues. I believe we have a good handle on the department.”
John R. Steffen, the Ethics Commission’s executive director, told reporters the misuse of the office at this level has not been seen in the nearly nine years he has been with the commission.
“We’ve not seen anything that compares to this abuse of public trust and abuse of public office. And that sums up what these 42 counts indicate, more than anything,” he said.
Seven other KDA employees under the Farmer administration were also charged by the ethics commission, with a total of 22 violations. Two still work for the state, according to AP. Farmer’s sister, Rhonda Monroe, holds the position of assistant executive director in the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance, and Bruce Harper is deputy agriculture commissioner.
Other media reported that Monroe was placed on special leave with pay, while Harper was placed on unpaid administrative leave at his own request, according to AP as of March 20.
Farmer’s attorney, J. Guthrie True, told AP that Farmer acted appropriately and ethically during his eight-year stint as agriculture commissioner, which ended in 2011. “Obviously, I’m very disappointed to see the Ethics Commission has charged him with anything and particularly disappointed in the number of charges that have been issued,” he stated.