FRANKFORT — The Kentucky Personnel Board deferred acting Friday on an anonymous request to expand its hiring investigation of the state Department of Agriculture. But the board did rule it lacked jurisdiction to pursue an allegation that Agriculture Commissioner Richie Farmer used a state employee to run personal errands.
A spokesman for Farmer, who is running for lieutenant governor this year on the Republican ticket of gubernatorial nominee David Williams, had no comment on the anonymous complaint, which was discussed in open session Friday by the Personnel Board.
The board decided earlier this year to investigate the agriculture department's decision to move two employees late last year from politically appointed non-merit positions to merit jobs, which would protect them from dismissal after Farmer leaves office at the end of this year.
The employees — Danita Fentress-Laird and Kathryn Willis — voluntarily vacated their merit jobs as assistant directors last month after the board's investigation became public, and they returned to their previous posts as political appointees.
Never miss a local story.
The investigation continues.
On Friday, Personnel Board executive director Mark Sipek presented the board with an anonymous email sent July 1 from a Department of Agriculture employee. The email alleged that Jennifer Ledford, who was hired earlier this year by the department as a political appointee, was improperly given a merit job in recent weeks.
The merit system protects workers from being dismissed without cause. Political appointees, also called non-merit workers, serve at the pleasure of their appointing officer.
The email said Bruce Harper, a friend and an employee of Farmer, suggested the initial hiring of Ledford, who gave $100 to the Williams-Farmer campaign May 2, according to the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance.
After Ledford spent a couple of months working in the commissioner's office, the email said, she started training for the merit position of internal policy analyst in the department's food distributions division under a person who was getting ready to retire at the end of July.
Ledford, of Harrodsburg, was placed in the merit job at a starting salary of $45,000 a year. The email said another internal policy analyst got a $5,500 raise due to Ledford's "starting at such a high salary."
"There are several hard-working employees that have been with the Department of Agriculture for several years that deserve better treatment than this," the email said. "People outside the department that are well qualified and applying for positions at the Department of Agriculture might as well not waste their time.
Reached by telephone Friday, Ledford said, "I can't discuss personnel issues." She declined to comment further.
Fentress-Laird, who now is division director for personnel and budget for the agriculture department, told the board Friday that proper procedures were followed in the placement of Ledford in the department.
She said the job of internal policy analyst was posted April 12, and 178 people applied for it. Ledford was selected because of her 19 years of financial experience, she said.
Sipek informed board members Friday that another employee in the department, Rebecca Wheat, has filed an appeal with the board about not getting the merit job taken by Ledford.
With that information, the board decided to postpone consideration of the Ledford case until Wheat's appeal has been resolved.
Sipek said the appeal could take several months to resolve.
Board member Doug Sapp said the board should acknowledge that it lacks jurisdiction to consider the email's allegation that Farmer misused an employee for personal benefit.
The email alleges that Farmer had employee David Fint, who works in the fleet division, put up political signs on state time and once was called by the commissioner at 8 p.m. to "go to Lowe's here in Frankfort and purchase a refrigerator for him on his procard and to bring it to his house that evening."
Fint did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment.