Larry Keeling: Richie Farmer's bad Derby week

Drive-by doe shooting may be least of his legal problems

Herald-leader columnistMay 6, 2012 

FRANKFORT — Good morning, winners. Good morning, losers. Since this is being written before the big day at the races, I can't tell you which category applies to me. But if something didn't happen to me on the way to Keeneland, I did have money on the race. It's the Kentucky thing to do.

Does it get any better than Derby week in Kentucky? Party, party, party like it's the eve of the apocalypse. And a good time had by all.

Well, maybe not all. This Derby week got off to a bad start for Richie Farmer with the release of an audit report on his days as state agriculture commissioner. To put it politely, the audit's findings suggest the one-time University of Kentucky basketball player made some unusual decisions during his eight years on the public payroll.

But before moving on to the ones that raise eyebrows the highest, there is the little matter of Bambi's friend. As someone who hasn't hunted since my teens (and didn't hunt a whole lot then) and thus doesn't know the ins and outs of modern hunting techniques and/or etiquette, I have a question: Does popping a cap in a doe from the cab of a state vehicle qualify as a drive-by shooting?

This may not be worst of the audit's findings, but it was an attention-grabbing one. Not just for the shooting itself, but also because Farmer reportedly had the aide who was driving him on his little safari "remove the doe's back straps or tenderloins, bag them and place them in the truck."

Also grabbing attention was the finding that Farmer reportedly had an aide chauffeur his dog from Louisville to Frankfort twice because the hotel Farmer was staying in during the State Fair didn't allow pets.

While the doe and dog episodes make interesting reading and having state employees perform personal tasks for him could cause Farmer some problems with the Executive Branch Ethics Commission, his biggest worry from the audit could involve Stephanie Sandmann, the girlfriend he put on the state payroll as a staff assistant for his last two months in office.

Auditors could not confirm any significant work performed by her after her Oct. 31 hiring, according to the report, which also said employees seldom saw her in the office on work days. However, two department employees told auditors they saw her at Farmer's home during work hours on two separate occasions.

In 1990, former Agriculture Commissioner Ward "Butch" Burnette was convicted of felony theft by deception for putting a secretary on the payroll three weeks before she actually began working. Some chatter in the Frankfort legal community suggests Farmer may be susceptible to an indictment on similar charges.

Another audit finding worthy of note was that, under Farmer, the Department of Agriculture "appears to have pre-selected candidates for merit employee." The earliest of several instances noted in the report dates to May 1, 2006.

Putting this in perspective, on May 1, 2006, former Gov. Ernie Fletcher's administration had been embroiled in its BlackBerry Jam hiring investigation for almost a year. A number of his aides had been indicted by a special grand jury. Fletcher had issued a blanket pardon for anyone in his administration — except himself — who might have violated merit system rules. He had exercised his Fifth Amendment rights in his own appearance before the grand jury. And 10 days after May 1, 2006, Fletcher would be indicted and would have to cut a deal with the attorney general's office to avoid being prosecuted after his term was over.

And right in the middle of all this, on May 1, 2006, Richie Farmer reportedly decides it would be a good idea to start playing games with the merit system?

Seriously?

When Burnette went down, Farmer was still a college basketball player who probably wasn't paying attention to political scandals. So, if he did step into a similar pitfall, he at least has the excuse of not knowing the consequences. No such excuse exists for the allegations of merit system abuses. No way he could miss that memo.

Reach Larry Dale Keeling at lkeeling@herald-leader.com.

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