LOUISVILLE — Outgoing Agriculture Commissioner Richie Farmer says he did nothing improper in hiring his girlfriend for a job in his Frankfort office.
Farmer's comments Thursday about his hiring of Stephanie L. Sandmann as a special assistant in his department were his first since The Courier-Journal reported the hiring Nov. 17.
He told reporters at the Kentucky Farm Bureau convention in Louisville that Sandmann is qualified for the job, a non-merit position paying $5,000 a month. Duties include assisting with administrative tasks and answering the phone.
Farmer said he and Sandmann "went out" a couple of times since meeting in late August, but he said he has never dated anyone else at the department during his tenure. "I was married," he said.
He said Sandmann's hiring came when the department was short-staffed.
"It was just a situation where it worked out," Farmer said.
Farmer calmly answered questions about the hiring, but he expressed frustration over the attention given the hiring and his divorce case.
"I talked to legal staff and made sure that there was nothing improper, that we followed all the rules and regulations in hiring a non-merit employee," Farmer said. "Nothing was done improperly."
The incoming ag commissioner, James Comer, said that on Monday, he is going to have his transition team interview all 26 non-merit employees, including Sandmann, and let them make the case for "what they can do for the taxpayers." He then will make the decision on who will stay and who will go. A few will be asked to remain with the department.
"I can promise you this: There will be a lot of new faces at the Department of Agriculture," he told reporters. Of Sandmann, Comer said he "wouldn't bet on her staying."
Comer, a state lawmaker and farmer from southern Kentucky, said he wasn't accusing Farmer of any wrongdoing.
"I'm mindful of the outrage from the public over the recent articles about spending and behavior at the department, and I'm taking it very seriously," Comer said. "We're going to go in there on Day 1 and I'm going to lead the department in a new direction."
Comer said he plans to institute policy concerning supervisors dating. "I don't want to over-regulate," he said.
Farmer, whose wife filed for divorce in April, lost his bid for lieutenant governor in November on the Republican ticket with Senate President David Williams.
Farmer also said he is exploring his employment options. He said there has "been no contact" with the University of Kentucky, where he was a star basketball player in the 1990s; Farmer previously told the Herald-Leader that his "dream job" would be UK's athletics director. Farmer said he might go back into financial advising, but his focus now is on his sons.