A federal grand jury has indicted former Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner Richie Farmer for allegedly misusing property and more than $450,000 during his eight years at the helm of the state Department of Agriculture.
A grand jury in Lexington charged Farmer, 43, with four counts of misappropriating property and money, and one count of soliciting property to influence agriculture department business. Each charge carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
In addition, federal authorities will attempt to make Farmer repay $450,000, the amount he allegedly took from the department. The alleged misappropriation of public funds occurred from 2008 to 2011, according to the indictment.
Farmer, a former University of Kentucky basketball player, is scheduled to be arraigned April 30 in Lexington. Farmer will plead not guilty and will not be taken into custody, said his attorney, J. Guthrie True.
True told reporters during a news conference at his Frankfort office that he was disappointed but not surprised by the indictments, which were issued late Friday and unsealed Monday. He said that no plea deal was in the works and that he expected the case to go to trial.
He said that Farmer did nothing illegal and that federal prosecutors are setting a "dangerous precedent" by inappropriately questioning the political and policy priorities of an elected official.
"We don't believe these issues should be in the criminal arena at all," True said. "We feel strongly that the issues raised by the indictments should not be the bailiwick of the United States Department of Justice but rather are matters which should be in the province of the voters of Kentucky."
U.S. Attorney Kerry B. Harvey said the investigation into alleged improprieties at the Department of Agriculture during Farmer's tenure continued. Harvey declined to say whether others could face federal charges.
Attorney General Jack Conway declined to comment Monday on a possible separate state investigation. Conway did say that investigators with his office have cooperated with federal authorities on the case against Farmer.
Harvey, speaking Monday during a news conference at his Lexington office, said Farmer created political jobs for friends — including his girlfriend — who received substantial salaries but often did not report for work or did little or no work. Some of those employees also ran personal errands for Farmer, Harvey said, and helped around his house by "building a basketball court for Farmer, placing flooring in Farmer's attic and organizing Farmer's personal effects."
The indictment refers to three former agriculture employees by their initials. Those people have been named in previous investigations or media reports involving Farmer. They are:
■ Stephanie Sandmann, Farmer's then-girlfriend, who was hired as a special assistant but did little or no work and received a "substantial" salary, the indictment alleges.
■ William E. Mobley, a former special assistant and longtime friend of Farmer who "routinely failed to report for work," the indictment alleges.
■ Mark Jackson, a former special assistant to Farmer who appeared to have "ambiguous responsibilities" with minimal oversight, the indictment said.
Jackson appeared on the CBS reality show The Amazing Race. The show was taped in 2011 and aired in February 2012. Jackson was one of several people terminated by Agriculture Commissioner James Comer shortly after Comer took office in January 2012.
Harvey said Farmer also ordered extravagant gifts for attendees of the Southern Association of State Departments of Agriculture in 2008, which the Kentucky Department of Agriculture hosted in Lexington.
Thirteen agriculture commissioners from Southern states attended, but Farmer ordered many more gifts than the number of attendees, including 25 customized Remington rifles, 52 Case knives, 50 cigar boxes, 30 gift cards and 175 customized watches.
Harvey said Farmer took possession of some of those items for his personal use.
Farmer also reserved hotel rooms in the names of state employees for the Kentucky State Fair in 2009 and 2010, but the rooms were used by members of his extended family, Harvey said.
"Farmer wrongfully appropriated thousands of dollars' worth of services, guns, knives, electronics and other goods throughout his tenure as commissioner of agriculture," the indictment said.
Farmer also is accused of trying to solicit a bribe from an automobile dealership in exchange for a grant from the state Department of Agriculture to stage an all-terrain vehicle safety course.
Harvey declined to say what Farmer accepted from the dealership in exchange for the grant. But in state ethics charges filed in March, Farmer was accused of receiving three all-terrain vehicles in exchange for promising state grants.
The indictment follows a string of ethical and legal troubles for the 2011 Republican candidate for lieutenant governor who was once considered a rising star in the Republican Party.
In March, the state Executive Branch Ethics Commission charged Farmer with 42 counts of violating state ethics laws, the most ever issued by the panel against one person. The previous high against one person was 16.
The ethics panel also charged seven others, six of whom are former or current employees of the department. Sandmann and Mobley are among them.
The ethics charges against Farmer included misuse of state employees, misuse of state resources, improper use of grants and improper use of Kentucky Proud marketing funds. The ethics case remains open.
Most of the allegations against Farmer stem from an investigation last year by state Auditor Adam Edelen that said a "toxic culture of entitlement" permeated the agriculture department under Farmer, who was commissioner from 2004 through 2011. The report found that Farmer used state workers to build a basketball court in his backyard, take him hunting and shopping, mow his yard, and chauffeur his dog between Frankfort and Louisville during the state fair — all while they were on the clock.
Comer said in September that the FBI had begun investigating problems at the department under Farmer's tenure.
Farmer played basketball for UK from 1988 to 1992. He averaged 7.6 points a game during his collegiate career, but he gained iconic status as a member of "The Unforgettables," players who were members of the Kentucky team barred from postseason play for two years before losing to Duke in the 1992 regional NCAA finals.
Before that, Farmer led Clay County to the high school Sweet Sixteen championship game three times, with a victory in 1987, and earned the state's "Mr. Basketball" title his senior year.
Farmer is in good health after hip surgery last year, said True, his attorney.
"He looks to be back in three-point form to me," True said.
He said that Farmer's employment situation was "tough" and that Farmer recently tried to start a business venture related to cars.
"He probably won't be going forth with that now," True said.
Farmer had been selling cars at a Manchester dealership but is now unemployed.
True declined to say who was paying Farmer's legal bills.
From the federal indictment of Richard Dwight Farmer Jr.
■ Four counts of converting state funds and property to personal use
■ One count of soliciting a bribe in exchange for a state grant
A maximum of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine for each count
Prosecutors want Farmer to repay $450,000, the amount of state property and money he allegedly diverted for personal use.
Farmer allegedly received the following items, paid for at taxpayers' expense: Rifles, knives, cigar boxes, gift cards, watches, hotel rooms, clothing, computer equipment, refrigerators, filing cabinets, free labor for home improvement projects (basketball court and attic flooring), free labor for personal services (baby-sitting, lawn mowing, transporting his dog).
Reporter Janet Patton contributed to this story. Beth Musgrave: (502) 875-3793. Twitter: @BGPolitics. Blog: Bluegrasspolitics.bloginky.com.