Ky. amusement ride inspector lacked certification for nearly 5 years

bmusgrave@herald-leader.comApril 27, 2012 

FRANKFORT — A distant relative of former Agriculture Commissioner Richie Farmer worked in the Department of Agriculture for nearly five years as an amusement ride inspector despite never receiving certification to do the work.

George "Doug" Begley worked from July 1, 2007, to March 12 inspecting amusement park rides in Eastern Kentucky, according to documents obtained by the Lexington Herald-Leader under the state's Open Records Act.

Documents in Begley's personnel file show he voluntarily accepted a demotion to the department's fuel-testing division in March after Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, who took office in January, discovered that Begley never received his certification. Farmer was commissioner at the time Begley was hired.

"Given the recent tragedy at Kentucky Kingdom, Commissioner Comer determined that Mr. Begley should no longer hold the position as amusement rides supervisor," according to a March 12 memo in Begley's file.

A Louisville teen's feet were severed after she was hurt on a ride at Six Flags Kentucky Kingdom in 2007. The park closed in 2009.

Begley, who worked out of Breathitt County and inspected rides in that area, could not be reached for comment.

Holly VonLuehrte, general counsel for the Department of Agriculture, said she could not comment on whether the department planned to re inspect rides monitored by Begley, because that decision was part of a "pending personnel matter."

Kentucky's nine remaining amusement ride inspectors all have certifications from the National Association of Amusement Ride Safety Officials, which provides training for inspectors, VonLuehrte said.

Comer asked state Auditor Adam Edelen to conduct an audit of the Department of Agriculture after finding several irregularities in the department when he took office in January. Farmer, a former University of Kentucky basketball star, served as agriculture commissioner from 2004 until Comer took over.

Edelen's office is expected to announce the results of that audit Monday. Stephenie Steitzer, a spokeswoman for Edelen, said she could not comment on whether Begley would be part of the state auditor's report.

Begley's uncle is married to Farmer's aunt. Begley was hired in March 2007 as an agriculture inspector and moved to amusement ride inspections on July 1, 2007. As an amusement ride inspector, he was making a little more than $33,000 a year.

Questions also have been raised about the frequent failure of global positioning system units that were attached to Begley's state-issued vehicles. GPS devices are used to help the department monitor and track staff and vehicles.

Begley's personnel file contains a two-page report that details problems with GPS units attached to his vehicles. It also contained emails between Department of Agriculture staff and a company that monitors the GPS units, asking questions about the possibility that GPS units used by Begley had been tampered with.

VonLuehrte said she could not comment on whether Begley was being investigated for possibly tampering with GPS units.

"I cannot comment on a pending personnel matter." VonLuehrte said.

She said Comer "will act in the best interest of the department."

According to the report in Begley's file, GPS units that were attached to his state-issued vehicles failed three times since last June.

On June 26, the GPS unit failed in a vehicle Begley began driving earlier that month, according to documents in his personnel file.

For the remainder of the year, Begley was given vehicles by the Farmer administration that did not have GPS units.

In February, Comer decided that all state vehicles driven by his workers should have GPS units, according to a memo in Begley's file.

Begley received a vehicle with a working GPS unit that same month, but the unit stopped working for a time on Feb. 27. It started working again later that day after a diagnostic report on the GPS unit showed that a fuse had blown or it had been removed.

On March 1, Begley picked up a new vehicle. Later that day, the vehicle's GPS quit working.

In an email, Steve Minter, a Department of Agriculture employee, asked Webtech solutions, which manages the department's GPS units, about problems with the GPS unit on March 1.

Walter Fischer, an employee at Webtech, said the problems could have been caused by a "blown or removed" fuse.

Beth Musgrave: (502) 875-3793. Twitter: @BGPolitics. Blog: bluegrasspolitics.bloginky.com

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