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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.

Farmer questions contribution to Comer in agriculture commissioner race

By Jack Brammer
jbrammer@herald-leader.com

FRANKFORT – The Democratic campaign of Bob Farmer for state commissioner of agriculture claimed Wednesday that his Republican opponent, state Rep. James Comer, violated an ethics law by accepting a campaign contribution from a lobbyist.

About an hour after the Farmer campaign made the claim, Comer’s campaign amended its campaign finance report to reflect that no lobbyist has contributed to it.

The Farmer campaign said in a news release at 9:22 a.m. that Comer received a contribution from Robert Heleringer, a Louisville attorney and lobbyist, on Sept. 30.

Richie Farmer determined to bounce back after tough year

By Jack Brammer
jbrammer@herald-leader.com

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of stories about candidates for lieutenant governor.

FRANKFORT — Of all his 42 years, this one has been the toughest for Richie Farmer.

“I’d be lying if I said anything different,” said the Kentucky basketball icon who is about to wrap up eight years as state agriculture commissioner and is hoping to become Kentucky’s next lieutenant governor.

Farmer has endured personal upheaval and public pillorying while running on a ticket this year with Republican gubernatorial nominee David Williams.

As his wife of 13 years filed for divorce this spring, the media and Democrats dogged Farmer with questions about spending in his state office. The controversial purchases range from refrigerators and televisions to hotel stays and conference trips. He claims all of them were appropriate to his job.

While his office’s signature program, Kentucky Proud, has been praised for dramatically increasing the visibility of Kentucky-grown farm products, political opponents say the program spent too much money promoting Farmer.

Comer, P’Pool announce bus tour

By Beth Musgrave
bmusgrave@herald-leader.com

FRANKFORT — Two Republican candidates for statewide office plan to embark Wednesday on a four-day “Corn and Coal” bus tour.

State Rep. James Comer, who is running for agriculture commissioner, and Todd P’Pool, the Todd County attorney who is challenging Democratic incumbent Attorney General Jack Conway, announced Monday that they will make stops in 15 counties.

Comer faces Democrat Bob Farmer in the Nov. 8 general election.