FRANKFORT — A far-reaching audit of the state Department of Agriculture during former Commissioner Richie Farmer’s tenure over that agency leveled numerous allegations that the former Wildcat hero-turned-Republican politician used the office for the benefit of friends, family and himself.
The audit, released Monday during a joint press conference by state Auditor Adam Edelen, a Democrat, and current Agriculture Commissioner James R. Comer, Farmer’s Republican successor, who requested the audit, also outlines an agency plagued by lax oversight and several instances of employee corruption.
“It’s important to know that Commissioner Comer has been a daily partner in this effort,” Edelen said. “The findings certainly are a surprise to him, and to his credit, he hasn’t let any grass grow in bringing reform to an agency that desperately needed it.”
“At the end of the day, this was worth it,” Comer said. “We can move forward as the Kentucky Department of Agriculture now … today is a new day. Let me say and be very specific: The overwhelming majority of the employees in the Kentucky Department of Agriculture are some of the best in state government. I am very honored and blessed to work with them. There were a few bad apples. I think they’ve been documented in this audit. We have taken appropriate action prior to the audit today.”
The audit paints a picture of Farmer that is quite different from his history as a Kentucky high school and college basketball legend.
In a statement upon the release of the audit’s findings, Edelen blasted Farmer.
“The law makes no distinction between icons and the rest of us, and neither do I,” Edelen said. “The report paints a clear picture of an administration that had no qualms about treating taxpayer resources as its own. The former commissioner had state employees on state time take him hunting and shopping, mow his yard, build a basketball court in his backyard, and even chauffer his dog. He showered himself with gifts and office equipment and rewarded friends with jobs. These are just some of the documented abuses that should outrage every Kentuckian.”
Many of the allegations concern the 2008 annual conference of the Southern Association of State Departments of Agriculture, which met in Lexington while Farmer was president of the organization. According to the audit, Farmer directed the purchase or donation of a large number of gifts for his 16 fellow members, then took extras home with him for his own use.
Items Farmer is alleged to have taken include 13 rifles — including one with his UK basketball number — and rifle cases, 35 Case pocketknives, “several” cigars and personalized wooden cigar boxes, 15 $50 shopping mall gift cards, 130 wristwatches and 33 bottles of Maker’s Mark bourbon which had been donated by a local vendor. Of the 13 rifles, Farmer returned seven in January, after he left office, leaving six still unaccounted.
Also during the conference, Farmer directed employees of his department to staff the event, at a cost of $52,310 to the state, “with duties such as transporting conference attendees, escorting tour groups, conducting children’s programs, and acting as general support staff.”
“While the hosting of an associational conference can be beneficial to state agencies or the state as a whole, the cost to the public must be within reason. Given the cost associated with the large number of KDA employees working the conference, it is difficult to justify the costs as reasonable or significantly beneficial,” the report concludes.
Farmer is also alleged to have directed that additional rooms be booked during the conference to the use of his extended family, at a cost of $1,380, with SASDA funds. However, the 55,000 hotel reward points, worth $688, were credited to Farmer’s personal awards account.
The audit also questions the practice of booking hotel rooms for Farmer and his family during the Kentucky State Fair and boys’ Sweet 16 State Basketball Tournament.
“During the 2009 and 2010 Kentucky State Fairs, the former Personnel Director reserved rooms in the names of two KDA employees who she knew would not be staying overnight during the fair,” the report says. “According to the former Personnel Director, she reserved the additional rooms at the request of the former Director of Outreach and Development, because the former Commissioner had told him that he needed extra rooms.”
During the basketball tournaments during Farmer’s eight years in office, the state spent $8,843 for hotel rooms in Lexington, even though Farmer lived 20 minutes away in Frankfort. The report questions the benefit Farmer’s rooms at the tournment had for the state.
“The reimbursement of the overnight expenditures does not appear necessary, nor is there documentation to support why additional rooms or the additional night’s stay was necessary,” the report says. “KDA resources were used to pay for lodging, meal allowances, valet parking, and tips for an event in which overnight stays were not required, and it appears to have provided a personal benefit to the former Commissioner.”
Farmer is also alleged to have taken items belonging to the state for his personal use, including Christmas gift baskets of “Kentucky Proud” items, wooden cowboy hats, two refrigerators, two filing cabinets, 29 “expensive, name-brand shirts” with the “Kentucky Proud” or KDA logos, up to 11 more shirts with no logos and three laptop computers and accessories. The report says Farmer returned the refrigerators and two of the laptops, but notes Farmer had taken unusual steps prior to returning the computers.
“KDA procedures provide that laptops assigned to former employees are ‘wiped,’ meaning areas of the hard disk in the computer are effectively overwritten so that any material stored in those areas is unrecoverable,” the report says. “The laptops returned by the former Commissioner were ‘wiped’ prior to their return, but in an uncharacteristically aggressive manner. The disks on these computers were completely wiped, meaning every addressable space had been effectively overwritten, including system areas that are normally inaccessible to the typical user or application software. This typically requires special software and expertise. This extreme level of deleting information from computer disks was not in keeping with the KDA’s procedures and all information that could have indicated when and how those computers were used was deleted, including web browsing history, file downloading, document creation and use, computer gaming, email or other correspondence, and any other activity.”
Farmer is also alleged not to have reported numerous gifts while in office, including $900 worth of concrete, which was used to construct a basketball court in his backyard. In addition, Farmer is accused of ordering state employees to conduct personal business for him, including constructing the basketball court, driving him and his former wife on shopping trips, driving him on hunting trips and escorting his dog between his home and a basketball tournament in Louisville, because the hotel in which Farmer was staying had a “no pets” policy.
Other employees of the department also come under fire in the report, with several instances of employees submitting questionable time sheets and mileage reports being cited.
Edelen said the audit’s findings will now be referred to the Kentucky Attorney General, Executive Branch Ethics Commission, IRS, Kentucky Department of Revenue, Office of Inspector General of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Personnel Board.
Farmer refused to be interviewed by auditors. His lawyer, Frankfort attorney Guthrie True, described the report as “very political and self-serving” to the Lexington Herald-Leader.
In an official response from the current commissioner’s office, Comer said he has begun implementing recommended policy changes to improve transparency, efficiency and accountability, in order to prevent many of the abuses outlined in the report from happening again.
“Overhauling an agency and completely changing its culture and environment is a great challenge,” Comer wrote in his response. “When I requested this audit, I knew the process would be difficult and time-consuming. But the cooperation and professionalism our staffs exhibited through this examination has set a new standard for good government free from the politics that have ground state government to a stand-still in other areas. I could not be prouder of the achievements that came about through this process and I thank you for your commitment to this effort.
“We have accomplished much … and our work continues.”