By Beth Musgrave
FRANKFORT — The Kentucky Personnel Board voted unanimously Friday to open an investigation into alleged improprieties at the Department of Agriculture under former Commissioner of Agriculture Richie Farmer.
The investigation stems from a lengthy audit conducted by State Auditor Adam Edelen that found a host of irregularities in the department during Farmer’s administration. Current Commissioner of Agriculture James Comer asked for the audit after taking over the office in January.
Farmer, a former University of Kentucky basketball standout and candidate for Lt. Governor in 2011, was commissioner of agriculture from 2004 to 2011.
The audit found that Farmer used state employees to take him hunting and shopping, mow his yard and chauffeur his dog between Frankfort and Louisville during the State Fair because the hotel wouldn’t allow dogs – all while on the clock.
In one instance, the audit found that Farmer had a state worker field-dress a doe that Farmer shot illegally while in a state vehicle on an unidentified local magistrate’s farm in Franklin County. It also found instances where state hiring laws were allegedly circumvented and certain employees were given bonuses.
Edelen’s findings were forwarded to several agencies, including the state Personnel Board, which investigates improprieties involving state merit — or non-political — employees.
The board on Friday approved an investigation of specific findings in the auditor’s report. For example, the audit found that people were preselected for certain merit positions and that Farmer and other managers gave bonuses to people without receiving recommendations from the supervisors of the employees.
In addition, the board will investigate a separate, anonymous complaint that alleges a non-merit employee was given special training in order to qualify for a merit position, said Mark Sipek, the executive director of the Personnel Board.
The board will issue its findings in one report.
Sipek said it’s not clear how long the investigation will take. If the investigation finds that there were criminal actions, the board can forward that information to prosecutors, Sipek said.
Guthrie True, a lawyer who represents Farmer, has dismissed the audit, saying it was “political and self-serving.” True could not be reached for comment on Friday.
The state Personnel Board has subpoena power. Sipek said Friday that it’s likely that board investigators will try to interview Farmer. Farmer declined to talk to state auditors during their four-month investigation.
The state Personnel Board has already acted on two previous complaints involving hiring during Farmer’s tenure. In January, the Personnel Board found that the department did not follow the law when it changed the jobs of two high-level workers under Farmer. It offered recommendations to the department, but they did not include any criminal charges.
The ethics commission, meanwhile, levied a $1,500 fine against one of the employees.
Farmer lost a bid in November for lieutenant governor. He was on the losing ticket with Republican gubernatorial nominee David Williams. He could not seek re-election in 2011 as agriculture commissioner because of term limits.
Many of the irregularities in the Department of Agriculture came to light after Farmer joined the Republican ticket for governor in 2011. The audit also found that Farmer used donated concrete to build a basketball court in his back yard and used state workers as laborers on the project. Farmer also hired his alleged girlfriend and a friend of his girlfriends shortly before leaving office.
In addition to the Personnel Board, the audit was forwarded to Attorney General Jack Conway, the Executive Branch Ethics Commission, the Internal Revenue Commission, the Kentucky Revenue Department and the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Shelley Johnson, a spokeswoman for Conway, said Friday that the attorney general’s investigation is ongoing.