By Jack Brammer — email@example.com
FRANKFORT — Former Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner Richie Farmer was charged Monday with 42 counts of violating the state ethics law, the most ever issued against an individual by the Executive Branch Ethics Commission.
“We have not seen misuse of office at this level in the nearly nine years I’ve been with the commission,” executive director John R. Steffen told reporters.
The previous high for ethics charges against an individual was 16, Steffen said.
The ethics panel also charged seven other people, six of whom are former or current employees of the state Department of Agriculture. The final person charged was Farmer’s sister, who works for the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance.
The ethics panel now will initiate administrative proceedings against the charged individuals to determine whether the alleged violations occurred. If the charges are found to be true, the commission may issue a cease-and-desist order, issue a public reprimand, recommend removal from office and set a fine of up to $5,000 per violation.
The charges against Farmer, a popular University of Kentucky basketball player in the 1990s, included misuse of state employees, misuse of state resources, improper use of grants and improper use of “Kentucky Proud” marketing funds.
Most of the charges stem from an investigation by State Auditor Adam Edelen last year that said a “toxic culture of entitlement” permeated the agriculture department under Farmer. The report found that Farmer had state workers build a basketball court in his back yard, take him hunting and shopping, mow his yard and chauffeur his dog between Frankfort and Louisville during the State Fair — all while on the clock.
He also used an extravagant 2008 convention for fellow agriculture commissioners from Southern states to stock his own gun rack and bar, at least partially at taxpayer expense, the audit found.
The ethics commission also made a few new allegations Monday. Farmer and his sister, Rhonda Monroe, face three counts of breaking ethics laws for allegedly conspiring to submit false records to the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance, where Monroe is the assistant executive director. The expense records allowed Farmer to collect inappropriate payments from his 2007 re-election campaign.
Steffen said the ethics commission is working with several other investigative agencies but he declined to identify any of them. He did not rule out other charges by the ethics commission.
Farmer unsuccessfully ran for lieutenant governor in 2011 on a Republican ticket with then-state Senate President David Williams. Farmer now sells cars in his hometown of Manchester in Clay County.
Farmer’s attorney, J. Guthrie True of Frankfort, said he has not had time to review the commission’s report but is “disappointed that the commission staff would make a statement about the degree of misuse.”
He said the public should “wait for an adjudication” before making up their minds about Farmer.
True also said he has no reason to believe that any grand jury is considering findings from the audit.
Current Agriculture Commissioner James R. Comer said last September that the FBI had opened an investigation into Farmer’s tenure as agriculture commissioner from 2004 to 2011.
Alison Gardner Martin, a spokeswoman for state Attorney General Jack Conway, would neither confirm nor deny the office is investigating Farmer.
The ethics commission also issued an advisory opinion Monday that said state workers should report any orders from a supervisor that might conflict with ethics laws.
During the investigation, Steffen said, commission staff often heard the excuse from state employees that they were “just following orders” to explain their conduct.
“This is not an acceptable excuse,” Steffen said, stressing that concerns expressed to the ethics commission are kept confidential.
Edelen said in a statement that he appreciates the ethics commission’s work. “The message is clear — no one is above the law,” he said.
Comer praised the ethics commission for its organized and expeditious work. He said the commission’s professionalism enabled his department “to continue moving forward while fully cooperating with the investigation of the previous administration.”
“We operate in the sunshine here,” he said.
The ethics commission also approved a settlement agreement Monday with Mark Jackson, a former special assistant with the agriculture department.
In the settlement, Jackson admits that he violated the ethics law by failing to file a completed 2011 financial disclosure statement on time. He agreed to pay a $100 civil penalty, receive a public reprimand and waive any right to appeal.
Efforts to reach those charged Monday for comment were not successful.
Here’s a closer look at some of the ethics charges against Farmer:
■ As agriculture commissioner, Farmer allegedly influenced the creation of four special assistant positions, with no specific job duties, and placed his friends in the jobs. Some were used to perform personal errands for him during work hours.
■ Farmer allegedly interfered in the hiring of merit employees, frequently influencing the department to hire individuals with political or personal connections to him.
■ Farmer allegedly solicited donations for the Southern Association of State Departments of Agriculture conference in Kentucky in 2008 from businesses that the department regulated.
■ He allegedly directed staff and a vendor to give him four firearms and carry cases, purchased with state funds, for gifts at the SASDA conference but kept them for his own benefit.
■ Farmer allegedly used his position to direct a department employee to influence a Kentucky Proud vendor to make wooden hats, valued at $600 each, for family members and himself, promising the hat maker that Farmer would give him special treatment.
■ Farmer allegedly directed a department employee to use a state procurement card to buy a refrigerator that he gave to his former spouse to use at her workplace outside of state government.
■ Farmer allegedly used department employees to use state funds to buy more than 50 shirts for his own benefit, deliver three department laptop computers to his family and buy filing cabinets for his home.
■ He allegedly interfered with the department’s grant-giving process by instructing workers to award the remainder of outstanding grant money to a business managed by a former UK basketball player that was not performing according to the terms of an agreement.
■ He allegedly influenced a private business to give him two all-terrain vehicles for his use in exchange for the promise of grant money from the department.
■ He allegedly used $20,000 in Kentucky Proud funds to sponsor a racing team owned by a family member.
■ In late 2011, he allegedly influenced the department to hire an individual with whom he had an ongoing intimate relationship and placed her under his supervision at a higher salary than the previous holder of the position.
Other ethics charges
In addition to Richie Farmer, those charged with ethics violations Monday include:
■ Bruce D. Harper, the current deputy agriculture commissioner and the department’s former director of outreach and development. From 2007 to 2008, Harper allegedly solicited donations for the Southern Association of State Departments of Agriculture conference from businesses that the department regulated. In 2010, he allegedly instructed department employees to probate a $200 fine to zero for a farmer who had violated dead animal disposal laws. Harper allegedly did so because the farmer had contacted his state representative, who, in turn, contacted Harper to pressure the department to remove the fine. In 2011, Harper allegedly interfered with the enforcement and penalty procedures against a grain dealer who was a political contributor.
■ Chris Parsons, former agricultural inspector in the state veterinarian’s office and former agriculture inspector in the division of regulation and inspection in the agriculture department’s office of consumer and environmental protection. Parsons allegedly claimed work time for work he did not do, used his state vehicle for non-work reasons and fraudulently completed inspection reports for inspections he had not conducted.
■ George “Doug” Begley, former agricultural inspector in the department’s office of consumer and environmental protection. Begley, an amusement ride inspector, allegedly claimed work time for work he didn’t do, misused his state vehicle and worked for his private logging business while on state time.
■ William E. Mobley, former special assistant in the department’s division of value-added animal and aquaculture production. Mobley allegedly failed to appear at designated stockyards while employed as a stockyard market reporter and collected mileage reimbursement for travel to those stockyards.
■ Steven C. Mobley, former director of the department’s agriculture marketing and agribusiness recruitment. Mobley allegedly completed time sheets and travel vouchers for his brother, William E. Mobley, for work not done. Steven Mobley also allegedly received a $600 wooden hat from a vendor but never reported it.
■ Stephanie L. Sandmann, former staff assistant in the agriculture commissioner’s office. In late 2011, Sandmann allegedly falsified her time sheets by claiming to have worked at the department during times she did not work.
■ Rhonda Monroe, assistant executive director of the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance and Farmer’s sister. Monroe allegedly used or attempted to use her knowledge of election finance laws to assist Farmer, her brother. Early in 2007, Monroe allegedly advised her brother and his then wife to claim reimbursement from his campaign account for trips that he did not actually make and for trips that were made by his then wife for her private direct sales business. During 2007 and 2008, Monroe allegedly gave her brother some personal receipts that she then guided him to submit for reimbursement from his campaign account for his own financial gain. In 2009, Monroe allegedly assisted her brother as he responded to an audit being performed by her own agency.