Herald-Leader Editorial

Richie Farmer's fall provides a lesson

September 15, 2013 

Once an idolized folk hero to basketball-loving Kentuckians, Richie Farmer now is a felon. The plea deals he accepted Friday in federal and state courts and approved earlier by the Executive Branch Ethics Commission could send the former University of Kentucky star to prison for up to 27 months and cost him $125,000 in fines and restitution payments.

Farmer's misdeeds as Kentucky agriculture commissioner — the details of his misuse of state resources and personnel, the "ghost" jobs he gave to friends — have been sufficiently aired. We won't reiterate them. Nor will we get into the debate over what to do with his retired jersey hanging in Rupp Arena.

Instead, we will harken back to a phrase state Auditor Adam Edelen used when he released the report that launched the criminal and ethical investigations concluded by Friday's plea deals. Edelen said his auditors found a "toxic culture of entitlement" existed in the Department of Agriculture while Farmer presided over it.

We recall this because, while Farmer's behavior was particularly egregious and his fall from grace the longest with the hardest landing, his is not the only recent example of a sense of entitlement leading to excesses that betray the public trust. Far from it.

An audit of the Kentucky Division of Emergency Management released in August outlined millions of dollars in questionable spending, doctored records and an "atmosphere of intimidation" in which employees were "openly threatened" with retaliation if they cooperated with auditors.

In 2012, The Associated Press reported that Fish and Wildlife Commissioner Jonathan Gassett, who recently submitted his resignation, spent $71,000 on out-of-state travel between 2008 and the time of the report. By comparison, Economic Development Secretary Larry Hayes, whose job involves traveling around the country and the world to recruit new business investment in Kentucky, spent $49,000 during the same period.

A few years ago, heads rolled at the Kentucky League of Cities and the Kentucky Association of Counties because of spending scandals. Locally, spending excesses have been documented at the Blue Grass Airport, the Bluegrass Mental Health-Mental Retardation Board and the Lexington Public Library.

In each of these instances, officials charged with keeping the public trust felt their positions entitled them to gain some level of personal benefit while spending the public's money. Some merely bent the rules; others, including Farmer, broke them.

A "culture of entitlement" might also explain a recent non-spending scandal. If the allegations are true, recently- resigned state Rep. John Arnold may have felt his position as a lawmaker entitled him to sexually harass legislative staffers. It wouldn't be the first time.

None of these other abuses by officials in positions of public trust expiates Richie Farmer one iota. With Friday's plea deals, he may not be getting all he deserves; but he certainly deserves all he's getting.

The culmination of his case simply provided an opportunity to remind all public officials — elected, appointed or simply hired — the only entitlement that counts is Kentuckians' entitlement to better public service than they've been getting lately.

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