When he was organizing the 2008 Southern Association of State Departments of Agriculture meeting, then-Agriculture Commissioner Richie Farmer spent a lot of time considering what kind of rifle would make the best gift for his fellow commissioners.
At first, Kentucky "longrifles" were suggested, according to Agriculture Department records relating to the convention, released in response to an open-records request filed by the Herald-Leader. By January 2008, the team settled on the Remington 770.
In a letter to the Mayfield plant manager, Farmer's dairy marketing specialist-turned-event planner Eunice Schlappi wrote, "Per our conversation: Commissioner of Agriculture Richie Farmer would like to commission a special rifle as a gift to his 18 counterparts in the southeast to be presented at an annual conference that is to be held on June 9-13, 2008 in Lexington, KY. The event is funded totally by donations from sponsors (no state dollars involved). Commissioner Farmer would like a variation of the Model 770 deer rifle. The main reason being that he wants something that is made in Kentucky and likes the option of the deer rifle versus a target or smaller rifle."
The letter goes on to ask about possible options: Is a wood stock available? How about engraving customized for the event?
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In the end, Farmer decided on 25 guns of varying sizes, all with black synthetic stock, with "Ky Proud" stamped on the receiver, and standard scopes. He particularly wanted them numbered, starting with No. 1 if possible.
"HOWEVER, need one (1) of the 300s's to have #32 on it (Commissioner's UK number)," Schlappi wrote in her final order.
In January, newly elected Agriculture Commissioner James Comer and state Auditor Adam Edelen jointly announced a special investigation of Farmer's tenure. Records obtained from the Agriculture Department by the Herald-Leader showed that nearly $500,000 in departmental equipment, mainly computers, was unaccounted for at the time, including four Dell laptops assigned to Farmer. (Much of it has since been determined to have been sent to surplus.)
On Jan. 17, Farmer returned two laptops and, surprisingly, seven rifles that his attorney, Guthrie True, said were left over from the convention. Only 13 other state commissioners attended the 2008 convention.
Twenty-five rifles were ordered, including the one engraved with "32" for Farmer's Wildcat jersey number. Apparently that rifle was not one of the seven returned; it isn't clear what happened to the four other rifles, valued at $449 each.
"I feel quite confident that he didn't keep any," True said. "I don't think they're state property. They were not paid for with state money. I really don't think he was under any obligation to return them."
The current agriculture commissioner's office disputes that. "I don't know where the other four are," said Agriculture Department general counsel Holly VonLuehrte. "It's unclear whether or not they are department property. I think after the audit we'll be making the case that they are, and it's very likely we'll try to recover them."