By John Cheves
Agriculture Commissioner Richie Farmer racked up 2,645 personal miles on his state vehicle in the last three years while his office was telling the state that he only drove it for business purposes, according to public records.
Email exchanges as early as 2008 between the Department of Agriculture’s payroll office and the state Personnel Cabinet raise questions about the explanation Farmer offered earlier this month for not reporting his personal use of a state-owned sport utility vehicle. The personal use is part of his compensation and is taxable.
Earlier this month, state Auditor Crit Luallen notified the U.S. Internal Revenue Service and the Kentucky Revenue Department about Farmer’s “failure … to report fringe benefits.” Luallen cited the lapse in three consecutive annual audits, including one released this year.
A spokesman for Farmer, who is the Republican nominee for lieutenant governor, said again Thursday that the commissioner began to fill out personal mileage reports in 2008 after the Personnel Cabinet told him to. But a woman in Farmer’s office failed to submit his reports until Luallen’s most recent audit, spokesman Bill Clary said.
“As I’ve said before, there was a massive management and communications breakdown,” Clary said.
With the reports now belatedly submitted, Farmer will get amended wage and tax statements for the last three years to include the value of his personal mileage, Clary said. He declined to say what its monetary value was determined to be, but he said it won’t be enough to require additional tax payments.
However, Department of Agriculture emails obtained under the state Open Records Act indicate that Farmer, when told about the personal mileage requirements three years ago, claimed he did not drive a state vehicle for personal reasons.
In a March 26, 2008, email, the Personnel Cabinet advised the Department of Agriculture that the commissioner, as an elected official, must report personal mileage for wage and tax purposes just like any other state worker.
Responding on April 8, 2008, Farmer’s payroll supervisor, Tina Keene, said Farmer was unhappy to learn this.
“Like I thought, he did not like the idea at all,” Keene wrote to the Personnel Cabinet. “Jamie (another agriculture payroll employee) said he hasn’t turned anything in regarding vehicle yet. Ohhh Welll!!!”
On April 21, 2008, Keene asked the Personnel Cabinet, “What do you do when they won’t address the issue at all?”
Finally, on May 8, 2008, Keene told the Personnel Cabinet that “we received vehicle information from the commissioner (and) none of his mileage is used for personal use.”
“Does he drive this vehicle to commute to and from work?” asked Yvonne Richmond, a Personnel Cabinet manager.
“Yes, I believe he does,” Keene replied. “So those are considered personal and he has to count those. Danita (an agriculture personnel official) told him that, I believe. There is a typed-in statement at the bottom of the form, ‘We are unable to determine any personal use of the subject vehicle for the time frame set out.’
“I believe someone on his legal staff looked into this for him,” Keene wrote. “I don’t know. They don’t communicate with us.”
Keene wrote to Richmond again on Nov. 10, 2009, saying the state auditor’s office was asking questions about Farmer’s personal mileage.
“Wondering what happened regarding the commissioner’s vehicle usage,” Keene wrote. “Do you know if anything else was sent out to him, etc., etc. I found emails from back in May of 2008 and we still haven’t heard anything.”
Richmond wrote Keene back the same day: “Your agency replied that they could determine no personal use. We understood that to be your agency’s response.”
This year, on Feb. 15, Keene wrote Richmond to say the state auditor’s office was asking more questions about Farmer’s personal mileage. As a result, the Department of Agriculture was preparing to report several years worth of mileage for Farmer and subsequently amend his wage and tax statements, Keene said.
“LOLOLOLOL that is crazy laughter!” Keene wrote. “The last documents I processed for vehicle on a commissioner was in 2001.”
Farmer was unaware of these exchanges, Clary said Thursday.
Keene misunderstood what actually was happening, which is that Farmer properly filled out his mileage forms, but they were not leaving his office because of an employee’s mistake, Clary said. Farmer never refused to comply with the rules, he said.
“The communication between our payroll office and the commissioner’s office, which is in a different building, obviously was not very great,” Clary said. “That communications breakdown was not addressed until (Luallen’s) management audit was done in 2011.”
Keene did not return a call Thursday seeking comment.