Personnel Board holds off on expanding Ag Department investigation

jbrammer@herald-leader.comNovember 15, 2011 

Richie Farmer

DAVID PERRY | STAFF

FRANKFORT — The Kentucky Personnel Board is about to wrap up its investigation of job changes in the state Department of Agriculture but has not decided whether to act on an anonymous request to expand the inquiry.

Mark Sipek, executive director of the board, told the panel Monday that it will receive a report at its Dec. 9 meeting on the investigation of the agriculture department's decision to move two employees late last year from politically appointed non-merit positions to merit jobs, which would protect them from dismissal after Commissioner Richie Farmer leaves office at the end of this year.

Farmer lost a bid earlier this month for lieutenant governor. He was on the losing ticket with Republican gubernatorial nominee David Williams. He could not seek re-election this year as agriculture commissioner because of term limits.

The two agriculture department employees who were moved to merit positions last year — Danita Fentress-Laird and Kathryn Willis — voluntarily vacated their merit jobs as assistant directors in July after the personnel board's investigation became public, and they returned to their previous posts as political appointees.

The investigation continued.

Meanwhile, in August, the personnel board deferred acting on an anonymous request to expand its hiring investigation in the agriculture department.

The anonymous email request from an agriculture department employee alleged that Jennifer Ledford, who was hired earlier this year by the department as a political appointee, was improperly given a merit job.

The merit system protects workers from being dismissed without cause. Political appointees, also called non-merit workers, serve at the pleasure of their appointing officer.

The email request said Bruce Harper, a friend and an employee of Farmer, suggested the initial hiring of Ledford, who gave $100 to the Williams-Farmer campaign on May 2, according to the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance.

After Ledford spent a couple of months working in the commissioner's office, the email message said, she started training for the merit position of internal policy analyst in the department's food-distributions division under a person who was getting ready to retire at the end of July.

Ledford, of Harrodsburg, was placed in the merit job at a starting salary of $45,000 a year. The email said another internal policy analyst got a $5,500 raise due to Ledford's "starting at such a high salary."

"There are several hard-working employees that have been with the Department of Agriculture for several years that deserve better treatment than this," the email said. "People outside the department that are well qualified and applying for positions at the Department of Agriculture might as well not waste their time."

Farmer and the department maintain that proper procedures were followed in the job changes.

Another employee in the department, Rebecca Wheat, filed an appeal with the board about not getting the merit job taken by Ledford. That appeal has been resolved by a settlement, Sipek told the board Monday.

Sipek said Wheat's job has been reclassified as part of the settlement, but the department said Monday that the reclassification is under review.

The board decided again Monday to defer acting on the anonymous email request. The request also alleged that Farmer had employee David Fint buy a refrigerator for Farmer using state funds and bring it to his house.

The personnel board already has decided that it lacks jurisdiction to consider the email's allegation that Farmer misused an employee for personal benefit.

In September, the Kentucky Democratic Party filed a complaint with the Executive Branch Ethics Commission about the use of taxpayers' dollars to buy a refrigerator for Farmer's house.

That complaint is pending.

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