Agriculture Department upheaval

Kentucky Joe of 'Survivor' fired from Department of Agriculture

Rodger Bingham, 'Kentucky Joe,' is Among those fired by comer

jpatton1@herald-leader.comJanuary 14, 2012 

"Kentucky Joe" has been voted off the state payroll.

One of the first people new Commissioner of Agriculture James Comer fired was Rodger Bingham, the former Crittenden schoolteacher who gained national fame as "Kentucky Joe" on the 2001 reality TV series Survivor: The Australian Outback.

Comer took office Jan. 2, succeeding fellow Republican Richie Farmer. The next day, Bingham was dismissed from the political appointment that he'd held since 2004.

Bingham could not be reached Friday for comment.

According to Bingham's dismissal letter, he was fired without cause. "Please be advised that effective immediately, your services at the Kentucky Department of Agriculture are no longer needed," the letter reads.

Bingham, who had contributed $600 to Farmer's first campaign, was a member of Farmer's transition team when Farmer was elected in 2003. Then Farmer put him on the payroll as a spokesman in 2004.

According to a database of Kentucky state salaries, Bingham was paid $7,032 a month as a full-time non-merit employee in 2011. His job duties included talking to school kids and scout troops about the dangers of drugs, alcohol and smoking, presenting checks to food banks, and similar speaking engagements and photo opportunities.

Bingham's job was not affected by multiple budget cuts in the department in recent years.

He was one of more than a dozen non-merit employees terminated by Comer the same day that Comer fired Stephanie Sandmann, the state secretary who also dated Farmer. Sandmann was hired to a $5,000-a-month job in the final days of Farmer's failed campaign as running mate in Senate President David Williams' bid to unseat Gov. Steve Beshear.

Comer's office declined to comment on any of the terminations.

Another political appointee who was fired without cause on Jan. 3 apparently also has a connection to reality TV. According to fan blogs, season 20 of The Amazing Race will feature Mark Jackson from Manchester.

Jackson said Friday that he could not comment; the show begins airing Feb. 19. CBS did not respond to inquiries Friday to confirm that Jackson competed with fellow Clay Countian Bill "Bopper" Minton.

Jackson said he had been on leave from his $4,813-a-month Agriculture Department job as a special assistant, taking vacation time, since Nov. 20.

He said Comer promised during the campaign to keep his job, which he'd had for about seven years.

Jackson, who is black, said his firing by Comer, who is white, is unfair and racially motivated. He also said that reports about problems in the department under Farmer have been exaggerated.

"All this stuff about Richie, it's just getting crazy," Jackson said. "They ain't got the whole story."

Stories of mismanagement under Farmer have mushroomed this week.

On Wednesday, Comer and State Auditor Adam Edelen announced that a team of four auditors have begun a "sweeping review" of the department. Employees have come forward with concerns about expenses, travel vouchers and time sheets. About $500,000 in state property, including Farmer's computers, is either missing or can't be accounted for properly.

On Friday, the state Personnel Board said the agriculture department under Farmer had violated state hiring laws earlier this year when it moved two political appointees into protected state merit jobs.

Farmer has not responded to repeated requests for comment.

In April, Rebecca Ann Farmer filed for divorce; on Dec. 27, the Farmers reached a settlement. Terms have not been made public.

Jackson, who grew up as a friend of Richie Farmer in Manchester and coaches sports at the elementary school in Clay County, said Sandmann was Farmer's first girlfriend since Richie and Rebecca Farmer married.

"I begged him, after Becky filed for the divorce, to get out and find a woman," Jackson said.

However, Jackson said, he doesn't generally socialize with Farmer.

"I don't hang out with Richie like that. ... He hangs out with the uppity-up people," Jackson said. "We might play golf together, but we don't get out and eat together."

Reach Janet Patton at (859) 231-3264 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3264.

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