FRANKFORT — State Agriculture Commissioner Richie Farmer spent $1,576 in state money last month while promoting the Department of Agriculture's Kentucky Proud program at the Sweet Sixteen boys' basketball tournament in Lexington.
Much of that cost was for four nights at a $359-a-night suite at the Lexington Downtown Hilton. Farmer lives 28 miles from Rupp Arena in Frankfort.
He also was reimbursed for $40 spent on valet parking, according to expense records obtained by the Lexington Herald-Leader.
Farmer, a Republican who is running for lieutenant governor this year on the gubernatorial ticket of Senate President David Williams, has charged the state more than $6,000 to promote the Kentucky Proud program at the tournament since becoming agriculture commissioner in January 2004, according to the documents.
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Farmer is a former basketball star at the University of Kentucky who was named Kentucky Mr. Basketball in 1988 after hitting nine of 14 threes and scoring a record 51 points for Clay County in its loss to Ballard in the Sweet Sixteen title game.
Bill Clary, a spokesman for Farmer, said the commissioner attends the tournament to promote Kentucky Proud, which urges Kentuckians to buy local food products.
"We do promotion in Rupp Arena and have a booth there for the tournament," Clary said. "The commissioner actually moves his entire office to Lexington during that time and spends an extremely large amount of time at it."
Asked why Farmer needed Lexington lodging even though he lives nearby, Clary said Farmer "spends an enormous amount of time each day at this. It's more efficient for him to operate this way."
State Democratic Party Chairman Dan Logsdon said Farmer's expenses are "outrageous."
"At a time when Kentucky families are tightening their belts, how can Commissioner Farmer justify spending $359 a night on a hotel room 28 miles from his house?" Logsdon said.
Over the past year, Farmer's spending practices have been criticized heavily by Democrats.
Farmer did not take six days of unpaid leave as did other statewide elected officials and most state workers. He did take an eight-day trip with three department staffers to the Virgin Islands in June 2010 for an agricultural conference at a cost of $10,000, and spent $445,000 on 19 new state vehicles last year, including a $35,000 Chevy Suburban for his own use.
For the 2010 Sweet Sixteen tournament, Farmer's expenses totaled $1,232. His lodging at the Hilton that year cost $144 a night.
In 2009, Farmer did not stay overnight in Lexington but was reimbursed for about $200 in meals, mileage and tips.
Farmer spent $140-a-night for a room at the Lexington Radisson in 2008 and had total expenses of $825. He either did not attend the tournament or did not ask to be reimbursed for expenses in 2007. The lodging rate at the Radisson was $137.50 a night in 2006, $175 a night in 2005 and $168.54 a night in 2004. Total costs were $775 in 2006, $879 in 2005 and $859 in 2004.
Clary said the more expensive suite was used this year because "the department waited until the last minute to get reservations. Nearly everything was gone. He took a suite."
Clary did not know why Farmer did not stay overnight in Lexington during the 2009 tournament.