Herald-Leader Editorial

Troubling finding in Farmer saga; sister's role taints election watchdog

March 20, 2013 

There's a lot to be outraged over in the most recent installment of the Richie Farmer saga.

The accounts released Monday by the Executive Branch Ethics Commission include Farmer using his job as agriculture commissioner to hire a girlfriend and a group of buddies who drove him, his family and his dog around when they weren't cleaning out his garage or building a basketball court at his house.

And then there are the ATVs, guns, cigars, knives, liquor, wooden hats, cash and other swag that made their way into Farmer's private possession; and the Kentucky Proud money used to sponsor his brother-in-law's racing team.

That's all disturbing, if not surprising. Farmer's free-spending ways are not news.

The real bombshell involved charges that Farmer's sister, Rhonda Monroe, who is second in command at the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance, had helped her brother violate campaign finance laws.

The agency has wisely placed Monroe on leave with pay from her $77,931.12 job on Tuesday until her case is resolved, as the Department of Agriculture did Bruce Harper, who worked for Farmer and, until this week continued to work at agriculture.

KREF has one of the most critical watchdog jobs in government: keeping politicians honest about money. The charges against Monroe raise serious questions about how well the agency polices itself.

Monroe, the agency's assistant executive director, was charged with:

• Advising Farmer and his then-wife to seek reimbursement from his 2007 re-election campaign for expenses that weren't campaign-related;

• Giving Farmer receipts from her own personal expenses and telling him to submit them as his own to his campaign;

• When Farmer's 2007 campaign was audited by her agency, drafting a letter for him to respond to the audit that was "misleading in its contents and was intended to deceive the Registry about the expenses submitted for reiumbursement."

So, to recap, the Ethics Commission is charging that Monroe both helped her brother bypass campaign finance laws to divert money donated for his campaign to his own personal use and then, when the campaign was audited, provided a roadmap for him to mislead her office about the violations.

And, apparently, none of this activity was uncovered by the Registry even when it audited Farmer's 2007 campaign.

Farmer and others charged will have the opportunity to contest the allegations before the Executive Branch Ethics Commission and beyond, if they choose to do so.

Eventually their cases will run their course and they will go on with their lives.

The KREF has a different problem. While it's established by law, its authority rests ultimately on the perception of its integrity.

The staff and board were created by the legislature to watch over the dangerous mix of money and politics.

They must all ask just how close the agency's employees can be to the people it's supposed to police, and how to be sure they aren't stepping out of bounds.

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