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Three former agriculture employees settle ethics charges

By Beth Musgrave
bmusgrave@herald-leader.com

FRANKFORT — Three former state agriculture employees agreed Monday to pay a total of $15,500 in fines to settle ethics charges that stemmed from their employment under former Agriculture Commissioner Richie Farmer.

In March, the Executive Branch Ethics Commission issued 42 ethics charges against Farmer, who was commissioner from 2004 to 2011. In addition, the commission charged six other former agriculture department employees and Farmer’s sister, Rhonda Monroe, an assistant director for the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance.

On Monday, the commission announced settlements with three of the former agriculture employees: Bruce Harper, George “Doug” Begley and Chris Parsons.

The ethics charges against Farmer, Monroe and former agriculture employees William E. Mobley, Steven Mobley and Stephanie L. Sandmann are still pending, said John Steffen, executive director of the Executive Branch Ethics Commission.

Prosecutors say Richie Farmer’s alleged wrongdoing started before 2008

Agriculture Commissioner Richie Farmer

By Beth Musgrave
bmusgrave@herald-leader.com

FRANKFORT — Former Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner Richie Farmer misused state resources to further his personal and political agendas prior to 2008, federal prosecutors allege in court documents filed late Friday.

Prosecutors said Farmer, who was agriculture commissioner from 2004 to 2011, was only charged with alleged improprieties from 2008 to 2011 because a five-year statute of limitations prohibits them from pursuing alleged wrongdoing before that time.

Still, prosecutors said they plan to introduce evidence about Farmer’s conduct prior to 2008 during trial to bolster their argument that Farmer had an “unwarranted sense of entitlement.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney Kenneth Taylor said prosecutors plan to show that Farmer improperly influenced the hiring, promoting and rewarding of more employees than the three who are mentioned in an April indictment of Farmer.

Testimony and evidence also will show that Farmer, a former beloved University of Kentucky basketball player and once rising star in the Republican Party, tried to influence private vendors to provide goods and services to him or the department.

Prosecutors want Farmer trial moved to fall

Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner Richie Farmer

By Beth Musgrave
bmusgrave@herald-leader.com

FRANKFORT — Federal prosecutors want the trial of former Agriculture Commissioner Richie Farmer moved to this fall and say defense lawyers’ request to move the trial to February 2014 is unreasonable, according to documents filed Thursday.

Lawyers for Farmer filed a motion earlier this week asking U.S. District Court Judge Gregory Van Tatenhove to delay the July 2 trial until February 2014 “at the earliest.” J. Guthrie True, a lawyer for Farmer, said he had multiple scheduling conflicts and more than 16 compact discs of evidence against Farmer to review, making a July 2 trial impossible.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Kenneth Taylor, in a response filed in the federal court case, agreed that the case against Farmer — who faces multiple charges of misusing more than $450,000 in taxpayer funds — is complex but said that delaying the trial to February 2014 was “excessive.” Taylor asked that the judge set a trial date for the fall. Taylor noted in court filings that the case against Farmer is “an important case of public interest, and litigation should proceed at a reasonable pace.”

Richie Farmer’s lawyer asks for February trial date

Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner Richie Farmer

By Beth Musgrave
bmusgrave@herald-leader.com

FRANKFORT — An attorney for former Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner Richie Farmer wants a federal judge to push back Farmer’s July 2 trial date to February 2014, saying he needs more time to sort through voluminous records.

Farmer was indicted last month for allegedly misusing more than $450,000 in taxpayer funds. He has pleaded not guilty.

Guthrie True, a lawyer for Farmer, said in a motion filed Tuesday that federal prosecutors have given Farmer’s defense team 16 compact discs containing scores of records that could be used against Farmer at trial.

“This discovery includes hours of recorded interviews by the Kentucky Office of the Attorney General and the Kentucky Office of the Auditor of Public Accounts,” the motion says. “It will take considerable time for these interviews to be transcribed, read, and analyzed for information.”

Federal prosecutors have said the trial could last three weeks.

Kentucky business group gets behind industrial hemp bills, but hurdles remain

By Beth Musgrave
bmusgrave@herald-leader.com

FRANKFORT — The Kentucky Chamber of Commerce joined a growing chorus of high-profile supporters on Friday who want to let Kentucky farmers grow industrial hemp, but the effort continues to face an uphill battle.

Bills have been filed in the House and Senate that would license farmers to grow the plant — a close cousin to marijuana — if the federal government lifts its ban on the crop. Such proposals have failed to gain traction with lawmakers in previous years, but sponsors of the two bills said they believe the measure has a better chance this year.

The board of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce voted Friday to support the proposal and Republican Agriculture Commissioner James Comer has spent much of the past year aggressively lobbying state and federal leaders to lift the ban on hemp as a way to stimulate rural Kentucky economies.

Half of Kentucky’s congressional delegation — Republican U.S. Reps. Thomas Massie and Andy Barr, Democratic U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth and Republican U.S. Sen. Rand Paul — have also supported efforts to legalize growing hemp.

Still, skeptics remain.

Former Kentucky organic-food supervisor faces ethics charges

By Beth Musgrave
bmusgrave@herald-leader.com

FRANKFORT — A former marketing director for organic foods at the Kentucky Department of Agriculture allegedly used his state-issued email and car to do private consulting while on state time, an ethics panel charged on Monday.

The Executive Branch Ethics Commission charged Michael Fitzgerald with nine counts of violating state ethics rules for allegedly working as a private inspector for out-of-state organic food producers while also working as Agriculture Marketing Supervisor over the department’s Organic Program.

Fitzgerald, who left the department in April, could not be reached for comment Monday afternoon. Robert Bullock, an attorney for Fitzgerald, also could not be reached for comment.

Much of the allegations contained in the charges released Monday concern events in 2010 and 2011 when former Commissioner of Agriculture Richie Farmer was in charge of the agency.

Richie Farmer’s house sold to bank for $175,000

By Beth Musgrave
bmusgrave@herald-leader.com

FRANKFORT — A Franklin County home owned by former Agriculture Commissioner Richie Farmer was sold Monday for $175,000 to the bank that holds the loan on the house.

The house was purchased at a master commissioner’s sale at the Franklin County Courthouse by First National Bank of Manchester, which will re-sell the house to pay off a more than $317,000 loan that Farmer has not been able to repay. The sale price of $175,000 is less than the $250,000 appraisal. The house is on Cedar Ridge Road off U.S. 127 north of Frankfort.

James Davidson, senior lender for First National Bank of Manchester, was the sole bidder. Davidson said that he could not say how much the house would sell for in today’s real estate market.

First National Bank of Manchester filed the foreclosure suit in May against Farmer and his former wife, Rebecca Farmer, for $317,929.22 plus interest. She filed for divorce in April 2011, and it was finalized in July. Richie Farmer agreed in the divorce settlement to be responsible for making the mortgage payments. Court records indicate that the mortgage has not been paid since January.

Personnel Board opens investigation of Agriculture Department under Richie Farmer

By Beth Musgrave
bmusgrave@herald-leader.com

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.

Personnel board to decide Ag department investigation in January

By Beth Musgrave
bmusgrave@herald-leader.com

FRANKFORT — The Kentucky Personnel Board will hear a report in January on whether agriculture department officials violated state personnel laws when two merit positions were created and given to political appointees.

Mark Sipek, the executive director of the panel, told the board at its meeting on Friday that staff had not yet finished it report on its investigation into alleged improprieties at the Department of Agriculture and recommended that the board take up the issue at its January meeting.

Ag department director charged with ethics violation

By Beth Musgrave
bmusgrave@herald-leader.com

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 of 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.