In 2008, the Kentucky Department of Agriculture was complaining that it didn't have enough money for inspectors for amusement park rides and gas pumps. At least $350,000 had already been cut, and downsizing at the department was imminent.
Despite the state budget cuts, then-Commissioner Richie Farmer went ahead with a spectacular party and plans to shower guests with freebies, according to records obtained by the Herald-Leader through an open-records request.
The 2008 Southern Association of State Departments of Agriculture meeting, June 9 to 13, was billed as a chance for top farm officials from 16 states and territories to gather and discuss farm issues such as rising gas and food prices.
But the commissioners were hardly feeling the strain themselves. Thanks to Farmer and his staff, they were enjoying extraordinary hospitality.
During the five-day conference at the Griffin Gate Marriott Resort & Spa in Lexington, there were only three general sessions of about six hours with speakers. The commissioners called for Congress and the federal government to address the farm crisis.
Farmer, in a news release about the convention, decried higher food prices that he said were "especially hard on the poor and on our children. The financial strain on American farmers is an issue of public health and safety for all Americans."
Meanwhile, Farmer and his family — including his wife, sons, parents, grandmother and mother-in-law — and at least 53 members of his staff, 13 state agriculture commissioners, a few of their wives and about 50 other attendees were feasting on more than $104,000 in meals, including open-bar receptions, dinners, breakfasts and snacks on the golf course.
Golf wasn't the only entertainment. The convention set up a special tasting, with $1,113.58 in 16 different Kentucky bourbons. Then there was a $17,000 open-bar dinner at the Kentucky Horse Park and a $20,000 Day at the Races at Churchill Downs.
Tax dollars involved
As president of the agriculture departments association in 2008, Farmer had the honor of hosting his peers. His staff worked on plans for more than a year, all on state time.
"There was significant state money spent on planning and staffing for this conference," said Holly VonLuehrte, general counsel for the state Agriculture Department. She was not employed by the department under Farmer.
At least $15,000 in state tax dollars went directly to the conference, too, VonLuehrte said. "Yes, it does appear from the documents state funds were spent," she said.
At the time of the 2008 convention, which cost a total of $208,851.61, Farmer said no state tax dollars were spent — that it all would be paid for by private donations.
At least $174,450 was raised by Agriculture Department employees, much of it from pesticide and chemical companies, equine interests and commodity groups — all regulated to some degree by the department.
In fund-raising letters on state letterhead, Farmer told potential sponsors: "We will be showcasing the Kentucky Department of Agriculture, Kentucky Proud, and the many great things Kentucky has to offer. The participants of the conference will have the opportunity to see Kentucky and it's (sic) agriculture at its finest."
Farmer's office at the time declined to name the sponsors or say how that money was spent.
At least some of it paid for rooms for Farmer's family. His parents, grandmother and mother-in-law had rooms for multiple nights on the association's tab. A three-room suite for Farmer, his wife and three sons for four nights was "comped," apparently by the Marriott.
The convention, particularly its lavish gifts, is coming under scrutiny in an ongoing investigation by state Auditor Adam Edelen's office. Current Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, who was elected in November, requested the audit, which could be released later this month.
Edelen spokeswoman Stephenie Steitzer said the auditor's office would not comment until the report is released.
Farmer's attorney, Guthrie True, said Farmer would not comment on whether state money was used.
"I don't think there was anything improper about it. I don't think there's anything he has to defend," True said last week. "I don't think any state dollars went to purchase these gifts."
VonLuehrte said the Executive Branch Ethics Commission also appears to be investigating some aspects of Farmer's handling of the convention. Kathryn Gabhart, ethics commission general counsel, said her organization can't confirm or deny whether an investigation is under way.
A little over a week ago, the Kentucky Department of Agriculture released thousands of pages of records relating to the convention in response to an open-records request filed by the Herald-Leader.
Those records, which also have been turned over to the auditor's office, show that money was paid out of a separate association bank account for convention expenses but that bills almost always went to the "Kentucky Department of Agriculture." In many cases, purchases were tax-exempt, presumably because they were being bought by the state.
According to the newly released financial records, the Agriculture Department put at least $5,000 in cash into the convention bank account at the start; VonLuehrte said $10,000 more was paid in later.
That was in addition to $11,674.09 for hotel rooms for employees. At least 27 employees stayed even though at least 14 lived less than 40 miles from Lexington, the records show. (One employee's suite also apparently was comped by the Marriott.) The expense was approved by Farmer's chief of staff, Mark Farrow.
The Agriculture Department also paid registration for at least 53 employees, an additional $15,635, for a total of more than $42,309 directly paid for the convention.
Through registrations and cash contributions, the Agriculture Department apparently made up the budget shortfall not covered by sponsorships, about 20 percent of the total costs.
At the time, Farmer defended the expense of sending so many employees, saying the money was already in the department's budget and employees would learn a lot and make Kentucky look good.
Assigned to 'golf'
According to records, 65 employees worked all or some of the convention on state time; a handful gave 30-minute presentations on aspects of Kentucky's agriculture.
Others, including state veterinarian Dr. Robert Stout, were assigned duties such as "golf."
Bruce Harper's responsibility was listed as "fund-raising," and his wife, Sandy, handled "spouse tours." Others played host on tour buses, and five employees handled the "Kids Program" to entertain children, including Farmer's three sons.
The department's dairy-marketing specialist, Eunice Schlappi, appears to have been assigned to spearhead convention-planning efforts for more than a year. Schlappi, who is still employed by the department, declined to be interviewed for this story.
Multiple employees accrued "comp time" at the convention; one had 193.5 hours before the convention even began, the records show.
The convention spent about $7,000 on a variety of matching "Kentucky Proud" shirts and caps for Agriculture Department staff to wear each day, earning them the nickname "the blue army" from attendees. All the conference-goers, including department employees, received commemorative watches: 175 men's and women's watches worth a total of $11,469.50 were purchased from the same company that made the department's shirts.
Kentucky hospitality sweet
Except for a few hours of work sessions, the rest of the convention was devoted to enjoying Kentucky, from bourbon to basketball, history to horses.
There were tours for spouses: On Tuesday, there was shopping at Irish Acres Gallery in Nonesuch with a $1,000 lunch for 28 at The Glitz restaurant, followed by a tour of Ashland, The Henry Clay Estate, in Lexington.
Another day, they could visit either Rupp Arena and Woodford Reserve Distillery or enjoy a special $954 "Tuscan-style" luncheon with 15 bottles of wine at Chrisman Mill Vineyards, and then shopping at Fayette Mall with $50 gift cards.
One night, all the visitors were treated to an evening at the Kentucky Horse Park. For $3,985, the convention rented the visitor center, International Museum of the Horse, Hall of Champions and a hayride, including $2,000 in entertainment.
The event featured a Kentucky Proud dinner catered by Lundy's for $13,000, with waiters dressed as jockeys passing out lemonade while famous racehorses such as Cigar paraded.
For those who wanted stiffer stuff, there was an open bar offering Kentucky brands that served $1,875 in drinks.
The meal for 125 featured "steamship round of beef from Green River Cattle" and "country ham-laced Weisenberger muffins." The dinner was rounded out with Kenny's Farmhouse cheeses. (The department oversees the Kentucky Proud program, which promotes Kentucky-grown products, many of which were used in the meal.)
The next day, Wednesday, there were no work sessions. Instead, attendees toured Lane's End Farm before heading to Louisville for racing at Churchill Downs, a price tag amounting to almost $20,000 for room, food and drinks.
Commissioners presented trophies to winners after specially named races. And to commemorate the occasion, they got their own $100 engraved silver trays and photos from the winner's circle.
Thanks, but no opera
To sponsor the day at the races, the Agriculture Department originally approached Nicholasville feed supplements giant Alltech, which had already been announced as the title sponsor of the 2010 FEI World Equestrian Games at the Kentucky Horse Park.
"Richie, ... I appreciate your offer for Alltech to be a sponsor of the Kentucky Proud reception and the 'Day at the Downs' but unfortunately, I've told my people that we don't just write a check, we support with our team," Alltech founder Pearse Lyons wrote.
Alltech proposed a whole program: Dippin' Dots ice cream; Kentucky Ale beer, some in commemorative bottles signed by Triple Crown-winning jockey Jean Cruguet; meals, events and tours at Alltech's facilities; a speech by Lyons; and a performance by University of Kentucky opera director Everett McCorvey.
Altogether, Alltech offered $122,000 in goods and services plus possibly as much as $50,000 in marketing support.
In the end, Farmer's staff wrote, "We respectfully decline the offers to host the reception at Alltech or the Brewery on Monday, the Everett McCorvey performance and other technical support."
They did agree to take $1,000 in Dippin Dots and 75 cases of beer. Lyons addressed the conference on Tuesday.
Bourbon with that
While the commissioners were bemoaning the squeeze that record expenses were putting on family farmers back home, they and their guests were loading up on expensive gifts in Lexington.
■ On Monday, they got carved wood cowboy hats, $325 apiece, including one with the Kentucky Proud logo presumably for Farmer; and 25 bottles of Alltech bourbon, donated by the company.
■ On Tuesday, there were all-black Remington 770 rifles with scopes and cases, specially selected by Farmer and stamped with the "Kentucky Proud" logo. And more bourbon: 17 bottles of Maker's Mark, again donated.
■ On Thursday, they got 52 Case knives at $50 apiece, engraved "compliments of Richie Farmer."
At individual convention sessions there were more gifts, including 50 personalized cigar boxes with two cigars apiece at a cost of $850 and 17 bottles of Buffalo Trace bourbon, donated by that distillery.
Hardcover copies of Game of My Life: Memorable Stories of Wildcat Basketball, describing legendary Wildcats — including Farmer — were given away.
Altogether, there was well over $47,000 in gifts, not including those that were donated, according to the financial records.
The gifts, many of which were shipped home for free, were a hit.
"Dear Richie, Thank you so very much for your warm hospitality. ... Also, thank you for the marvelous gifts, the bourbon, cigars, custom knife and rifle. You and your staff went over the top," wrote Louisiana commissioner Mike Strain.
Hugh Weathers, South Carolina agriculture commissioner, wrote, "I especially wanted to thank you for the gifts."
Jane Swank, assistant to Oklahoma Secretary of Agriculture Terry Peach, who would host the 2009 conference, wrote, "I can truthfully say that I have never attended such a well run conference."
Swank went on to plan Oklahoma's SASDA conference. In an interview last week, she did not recall her own conference's budget but said the two were "comparable," and that both were fine showcases for their states.
"I did not handle the finances. I don't know what Oklahoma spent; I don't know what Kentucky spent," Swank said. Told that Kentucky spent more than $208,000, Swank was speechless. Did Oklahoma hand out rifles? "We did not," she said.
Regarding the price tag for the conference, Strain, the commissioner from Louisiana, said, "That's about what they run. That's generally the budget." Is it worth it? "It is," he said, for the opportunity for the agriculture commissioners to get together. "There's a sharing of information."
Bonus points for Farmer
Besides hotel rooms, food, bourbon, shirts, a watch, a handmade wood hat, a custom rifle and a knife, Farmer also got another perk out of the convention: major Marriott Rewards points for booking all those rooms.
On June 30, 2008, the hotel confirmed: "Dear Richie Farmer, Thank you for holding your recent event at one of the participating Marriott locations. This message confirms that you earned 55,000 Marriott Rewards points for holding your event at Lexington Griffin Gate Resort." These points could be used for booking future hotel rooms, Marriott said.
Biggest donors: chemical companies
The bulk of the party ended up being paid for by sponsors, who also got to come to the convention in some cases.
Chemical companies, including Northern Kentucky rendering giant Griffin Industries, paid at least $72,000 in sponsorships.
Almost all of the non-governmental guests were representatives of chemical companies and pesticide makers, including Syngenta, Bayer CropScience, Dow, Monsanto, Orkin, BASF and Pfizer.
Former Texas Rep. Charles Stenholm, who has lobbied for Syngenta and for horse slaughter, addressed the convention.
In 2010, Farmer publicly supported pro-pesticide federal legislation that would prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from requiring additional permits for farm pesticide use. In a news release posted on the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture's Web site, Farmer said, "This legislation would prohibit the government from placing a costly and unnecessary burden on our producers that would result in little or no benefit to the environment."