Deputy agriculture commissioner and Farmer's sister are placed on leave

jbrammer@herald-leader.comMarch 19, 2013 

Richie Farmer

DAVID PERRY | STAFF

FRANKFORT — A Kentucky Department of Agriculture employee who was charged with ethics violations Monday after an investigation of former Agriculture Commissioner Richie Farmer has been placed on unpaid leave.

Meanwhile, Farmer's sister, who also was charged with ethics violations, was placed on special leave with pay Tuesday as assistant executive director of the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance for a period not to exceed 60 working days, pending further investigation by the agency.

Farmer, who was state agriculture commissioner from 2004 to 2011, was charged Monday with 42 counts of violating state ethics law, the most ever issued against one person by the Executive Branch Ethics Commission.

The charges against Farmer, a popular University of Kentucky basketball player during the 1990s, included misuse of state employees and state resources, improper use of grants and improper use of Kentucky Proud marketing funds. Farmer's attorney, J. Guthrie True of Frankfort, said he doesn't think Farmer has done anything wrong.

Also charged with ethics violations were seven other people — two of whom were on the state payroll.

Holly VonLuehrte, chief of staff for Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, said Tuesday that deputy Agriculture Commissioner Bruce D. Harper has been placed on unpaid administrative leave, pending resolution of his case. He was charged with three counts of ethics violations.

"This is a serious matter, and Commissioner James Comer can't let it distract from the actions of this office," VonLuehrte said.

Harper, whose salary was $70,693 a year, allegedly solicited donations for a conference from businesses that the department regulates.

In 2010, Harper allegedly instructed department employees to probate a $200 fine to zero for a farmer who had violated dead-animal disposal laws. Harper allegedly did so because the farmer had contacted his state representative who, in turn, contacted Harper to pressure the department to remove the fine.

Harper also allegedly interfered with the enforcement and penalty procedures against a grain dealer who was a political contributor.

Rhonda Monroe, Farmer's sister, is assistant executive director of the election finance registry and has an annual salary of $77,391. She was charged with three ethics violations.

Sarah M. Jackson, executive director of the registry, informed Monroe Tuesday of her paid leave in a letter. The Herald-Leader obtained a copy of the letter through an Open Records request. Jackson declined to comment on the letter.

Jackson said in her letter that she had consulted with registry board chairman Craig Dilger about the job action.

Jackson also said she would notify Monroe of the outcome of the registry's investigation and of any disciplinary action taken as a result of it. If the investigation reveals no misconduct, Jackson said, all of its records will be purged from the registry and state Personnel Cabinet files. If the ethics allegations are supported by the investigation, more job action may occur.

Monroe, who could not be reached for comment, has a right to appeal the registry's action to the Personnel Board within 60 days.

Jackson sent a memo on Jan. 14, 2005, informing registry members and staff that Monroe, then Rhonda Farmer-Gray, was to start work at the registry on Jan. 18, 2005.

The memo said that she had been involved in her brother's campaign and must not be involved in any of the registry's work related to it.

The ethics commission this week said Monroe allegedly advised her brother and his then-wife to claim reimbursement from his campaign account for trips that he did not make and for trips that were made by his wife for private direct-sales business.

She also allegedly gave her brother some personal receipts that she then guided him to submit for reimbursement from his campaign account for his own financial gain and allegedly assisted him as he responded to a registry audit.

Each ethics violation carries a possible fine of up to $5,000. An officer of the commission is to hold an administrative hearing on the alleged violations and report to the commission, which will decide whether to impose any penalties.

Jack Brammer: (502) 227-1198. Twitter: @BGPolitics. Blog: Bluegrasspolitics.bloginky.com.

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