Former Agriculture Commissioner Richie Farmer pleaded not guilty Thursday to federal charges that he misused more than $450,000 of state money and property during his eight years as Kentucky's top agriculture official.
A federal judge set a trial date of July 2 and denied Farmer's request to celebrate his girlfriend's 40th birthday with a vacation trip in May to Cancun, Mexico. Farmer, who is unemployed, was released on his own recognizance but must look for employment, may not leave the state and must surrender his passport, the judge ordered.
The former University of Kentucky basketball player, whose retired jersey hangs in Rupp Arena, arrived at the federal courthouse in Lexington wearing a grey suit and UK's official blue-and-white plaid tie. He was accompanied by attorney J. Guthrie True.
True said he would probably seek to delay the trial because he has a scheduling conflict and it is likely to take additional time to prepare for trial.
Farmer, 43, did not speak to reporters before or after his court appearance.
"We're glad to finally get the initial appearance out of the way," True said after the arraignment. "We're going to be ready when trial time comes, and the rest of the story will come out then."
True said he is not sure whether he will ask U.S. District Court Judge Gregory Van Tatenhove to overrule U.S. Magistrate Judge Robert Wier's decision Thursday to halt Farmer's planned trip to Mexico.
"I'll talk to Richie about that," True said. "We knew it was pretty unlikely that he would allow travel outside the country."
True said the trip has been planned for months, is paid for and is non-refundable.
In denying the request, Wier said that even though he considered Farmer a low flight risk, leaving the country might make an escape too tempting.
True said Thursday that Farmer is trying to find a job, but constant publicity surrounding the case has made it difficult. Until recently, Farmer was selling cars in his hometown, Manchester.
A grand jury has charged Farmer with four counts of misappropriating money and property, and one count of soliciting property in exchange for a state grant. Each charge carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
In addition, federal authorities will try to make Farmer repay $450,000, the amount he allegedly took from the agriculture department. The alleged misappropriation of public funds occurred from 2008 to 2011, according to the indictment unsealed Monday.
Prosecutors allege that Farmer created political jobs for close friends who performed little or no work. Those employees allegedly ran personal errands for Farmer, including building a basketball court at his Frankfort home and chauffeuring his dog, while being paid by the state.
The indictment alleges that Farmer took state property for his own use, including electronic equipment, guns, knives, refrigerators and filing cabinets. Farmers' extended family stayed in hotel rooms that were paid for by the state during the Kentucky State Fair in 2009 and 2010, the indictment alleges.
During Thursday's hearing, Wier set the conditions for Farmer's release before trial. He ordered Farmer to have no contact with potential witnesses other than his ex-wife, Rebecca Farmer, and his girlfriend, Stephanie Sandmann, who was hired by Farmer in the final months of his term as agriculture commissioner. Sandmann is referred to in the indictment as S.S. and is alleged to have performed little or no work for the department while collecting a state salary.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Ken Taylor asked that Wier allow Farmer to talk with his ex-wife about their three minor children. Rebecca Farmer might be called to testify, but it is unlikely that Sandmann will take the stand, Taylor told Wier.
There was an additional condition involving Farmer's release that was discussed by the attorneys and Farmer at Wier's bench and was not made public. Wier cited that private conversation as another reason why he was hesitant to let Farmer go to Mexico.
Farmer's pre-release report — which outlines conditions of his release and includes medical and other information — was sealed by the judge.
Farmer also faces non-criminal state ethics charges in connection with alleged wrongdoing during his tenure as commissioner of agriculture.
In March, the state Executive Branch Ethics Commission charged Farmer with 42 counts of violating state ethics laws, the most counts ever issued by the panel against one person.
The ethics panel also charged seven others, six of whom are former or current employees of the department. The seventh is Farmer's sister, an employee of the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance.
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.
Much of the information in the indictment and in the ethics charges stems from Auditor Adam Edelen's review of the department after Farmer left office in 2012. The audit found that a "toxic culture of entitlement" permeated the department under Farmer, who was commissioner from 2004 through 2011.
Farmer ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor in 2011. It was during the 2011 race that many of the allegations of wrongdoing in the agriculture department surfaced.
Federal officials have said the investigation into alleged wrongdoing at the department during Farmer's tenure remains open. They have declined to say whether there will be other indictments.
Beth Musgrave: (502) 875-3793. Twitter: @BGPolitics. Blog: Bluegrasspolitics.bloginky.com.