Auditor details a 'toxic culture of entitlement' while Richie Farmer was ag commissioner

jpatton1@herald-leader.comApril 30, 2012 

  • Audit highlights

    ■ Christmas gifts: Farmer ordered staff to fill Christmas baskets for his family with items purchased by the department or donated by vendors.

    ■ Basketball court: Farmer had state employees help build a basketball court at his Frankfort house using donated concrete.

    ■ Deer hunting: Farmer had a state worker field dress a doe that Farmer shot illegally from a state vehicle.

    ■ Hotel rooms: Farmer had staff reserve hotel rooms at the Kentucky State Fair in the names of employees even though they were for family and friends.

    ■ Pay for friends: Farmer signed the time sheets for his secretary and girlfriend, Stephanie Sandmann, and paid a "hometown friend" more than $70,450 for little work.

  • What's next?

    The audit's findings have been referred to several enforcement agencies, including the state Office of the Attorney General, the Executive Branch Ethics Commission, the Kentucky Department of Revenue, the Kentucky Personnel Board, the Internal Revenue Service, and the Office of Inspector General of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Those agencies will determine whether to prosecute any potential violations of law.

FRANKFORT — Former University of Kentucky basketball star Richie Farmer often used the state Department of Agriculture as a gravy train for his family and friends, according to a state audit released Monday.

A "toxic culture of entitlement" permeated the department under Farmer, who had state workers build a basketball court in his back yard while on state time, according to State Auditor Adam Edelen.

Farmer used $900 in concrete donated from a vendor to build the basketball court and a retaining wall at his Frankfort home and never reported the gift, as required by state ethics laws, according to the audit.

"The law makes no distinction between icons and the rest of us, and neither do I," said Edelen, a Democrat. "The report paints a clear picture of an administration that had no qualms about treating taxpayer resources as its own."

Edelen said Farmer had state employees 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.

In one instance, the audit found that Farmer had a state worker field-dress a doe that Farmer shot illegally while in a state vehicle on an unidentified local magistrate's farm in Franklin County. Farmer told the state worker to remove the doe's "back straps or tenderloins," bag them, and put them in the truck, the audit said.

The audit was requested by Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, who took office in January. Like Farmer, Comer is a Republican.

The audit laid out what Edelen called numerous abuses of power, which he said occurred in a "real culture of fear and a hostile work environment" that discouraged state workers from coming forward while Farmer was in office.

Farmer declined to talk to auditors during their four-month, $100,000 investigation. His attorney, Guthrie True, said Farmer has no plans to comment publicly.

True dismissed the audit as "political and self-serving."

He said he does not think any state employee did work for Farmer on state time and that gifts to Farmer, including the basketball court, were given by people who supported the University of Kentucky basketball program. Farmer was a star player for UK in the late 1980s and early 1990s before he was agriculture commissioner from 2004 to 2011.

The audit said Farmer did not report any gifts to the Executive Branch Ethics Commission during his tenure. Gifts worth more than $200 are required to be reported.

"If there are ethics issues out there, we will deal with them when they come up," True said.

Comer, who appeared with Edelen at a press conference Monday, said he was shocked by the findings but is glad they have been aired and that morale is rising in his department.

"I'm not going to lie: This was like raising the Titanic here," Comer said. "But now we can move forward."

Edelen said the audit suggested that laws were broken, but he declined to provide a specific tally of taxpayer money wasted.

The audit's findings have been turned over to the Office of the Attorney General, the Executive Branch Ethics Commission, the Kentucky Department of Revenue, the Kentucky Personnel Board, the Internal Revenue Service and the Office of Inspector General of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Those agencies will determine whether to investigate various aspects of the report.

The attorney general's office is reviewing the audit, spokeswoman Allison Martin said. She said further comment on findings of the audit would be inappropriate.

According to the audit, Farmer:

■ Frequently used his official position for personal benefit, including twice — in 2007 and 2011 — directing a staffer to fill Christmas baskets for his family with items bought by the department or donated by Kentucky Proud vendors.

■ Personally signed the time sheets for his secretary and girlfriend, Stephanie Sandmann, and paid what Edelen called a "hometown friend" more than $70,450 for little work. Sandmann was hired just before the November election as Farmer's $5,000-a-month staff assistant. However, department staff said they "rarely saw her at the KDA offices performing any work." Twice, employees saw her at Farmer's home, where she was "performing domestic duties" such as cooking and cleaning.

■ Told staff to delay action against a grain dealer because it was an election year and any action could cause a negative political outcome. The grain dealer was not named in the audit.

■ Had staff reserve hotel rooms at the Kentucky State Fair in the names of employees who were not there so Farmer could house relatives and others at his own discretion.

"The law doesn't think it's a good idea to use phantom employees to reserve rooms for your parents," Edelen said.

Items returned

Several items that had been reported missing after Farmer left office were recovered.

Among the recovered items was a small $179 refrigerator that Farmer apparently had given to his now ex-wife, Rebecca Farmer, a teacher's aide in the Franklin County school system. She used it in her classroom at school, apparently without knowing it was bought with state funds.

In a text to Richie Farmer, Rebecca Farmer said on Jan. 12: "You need to get the refrigerator that is at the school. I don't know how you acquired it, but in case it is the one in question, I don't want it anywhere around me."

Richie Farmer responded: "It would have been nice to know sooner!!"

Rebecca Farmer: "Know what? You know you gave me a fridge. You helped me put it in my room at school."

Richie Farmer: "Have you had amnesia?"

Other items, such as six rifles bought by Farmer's staff for a 2008 convention of agriculture commissioners held in Lexington, have not turned up. Farmer did return seven of the 25 rifles bought for the Southern Association of State Departments of Agriculture convention.

True, Farmer's attorney, said later Monday that "all the guns we are aware of have been accounted for."

According to the audit, the convention cost taxpayers more than $96,000, including state time and $30,000 in taxpayer money through registrations and a disguised grant.

Three laptop computers issued to Farmer were returned, but their hard drives were wiped, apparently professionally, Edelen said. He said auditors were unable to determine what the computers had been used for or by whom. Another laptop and other computer equipment issued to Farmer remains missing, Edelen said.

Other problems

There were other areas in the general operation of the agriculture department that raised auditors' eyebrows, including several hiring issues and problems with verifying that work was done as claimed.

The audit said that Bruce Harper had been the sole employee of the "Division of Outreach and Development," which "was not a legally recognized unit of the KDA."

Harper still works for the department; under Comer, he is deputy agriculture commissioner.

The audit also determined that $43,000 in federal money meant to protect wild ginseng was diverted inappropriately to help pay for eight Ford Explorers used by Animal Enforcement officers.

And the audit said that a fuel and pesticide testing lab, built in 2008 for $1.65 million, has not met revenue expectations. Instead of producing a profit, it cost the department more than $900,000 in fiscal year 2011, the audit found.

The auditor's office recommended that the agriculture department make efforts to contract with other states for its use in an attempt to make it profitable.

In his response to the audit, Comer acknowledged that mismanagement of the fuel lab "is a deep concern" that he is working to address.

Also, the audit noted that an amusement ride inspector, George "Doug" Begley, appears to have received pay and the use of a state vehicle at times when little work was performed.

Comer's response

In the agriculture department's official response to the audit, Comer called it "thorough and well-supported."

Comer said he already has implemented "sweeping changes and safeguards" designed to increase transparency, efficiency, accountability and management.

"Much of what occurred in the previous administration resulted from a veil of secrecy that had been established regarding who was making decisions, what work was being performed and how money was spent," Comer wrote in the response. "This department now operates in the sunshine."

Comer said he has disallowed at least two payments to employees totaling more than $5,000 that he determined were unwarranted.

"I will not exacerbate the disregard to the taxpayers by releasing compensatory payments to employees who cannot account for their work product," Comer said.

Janet Patton: (859) 231-3264. Twitter: @janetpattonhl.

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