By Beth Musgrave
FRANKFORT — A division director in the Department of Agriculture has been charged with violating the state’s ethics rules after she allegedly created a merit-based position for herself to protect her job.
Danita Fentress-Laird was one of at least two political appointees who were awarded merit positions in the Department of Agriculture last year. According to charges released Friday by the Executive Branch Ethics Commission, Fentress-Laird used her position to create a merit position and then made sure that she was hired into that job.
Fentress-Laird was appointed as a director in the Division of Personnel and Budget by Agriculture Commissioner Richie Farmer, who is leaving office this January. Political appointees serve at the will of the commissioner. But the merit system protects employees from being dismissed without cause.
The ethics charges allege that Fentress-Laird created the position and then “assigned her subordinate Alisa Edwards with the job of conducting interviews; Fentress-Laird created the interview questions and possible answers for Ms. Edwards to use during the interview process.”
Fentress-Laird also had access to other applicants resume and other information, the commission found in its charges.
Fentress-Laird was not immediately available for comment. But the department has said that other people were interviewed for Fentress-Laird’s job.
Both Fentress-Laird and Kathryn Willis, a second employee who was also accused of “burrowing” into the merit system to protect her job, voluntarily returned to their politically-appointed positions in July, the Department of Agriculture has said.
The state Personnel Board has also initiated an investigation into how Fentress-Laird and Willis received their merit positions. That investigation is ongoing.
Fentress-Laird has 20 days to respond to the commission’s charges. If found guilty, she could face a fine for violating the state’s ethics laws.
The ethics charges against Fentress-Laird are just the latest in a series of hiring scandals involving Farmer’s department. Farmer also hired his girlfriend into a $5,000 a month position just days before the Nov. 8 general election, the Louisville Courier-Journal has reported.
Farmer was running for lieutenant governor on the Republican ticket of gubernatorial nominee David Williams. Gov. Steve Beshear easily beat the duo on Nov. 8, with a more than 20-point victory.
The Ethics Commission also announced that Eddie Moore, the manager of the Lake Cumberland State Resort Park, had agreed to pay a $1,500 fine after the commission found that Moore, as a manager of the park, received a steep discount on a house boat from a state vendor and also was allowed on three different occasions to use ski boats by the vendor for free.
The commission also charged Bradley Lowe, a former state Fish and Wildlife Conservation officer, with violating state ethics laws when he used his badge to get his underage daughter into a bar in Lexington on June 15. According to the commission’s charge released Friday, Lowe is accused of telling bar operators that he was conducting an undercover operation, flashed his badge and then preceded to order drinks for his daughter who was then 15. When Lexington police approached Lowe, he told them that he was a federal agent working undercover to “bust an Arab sex slave ring,” in order to avoid being arrested, the commission charges.