FRANKFORT — The Kentucky Personnel Board voted unanimously Friday to open an investigation into alleged improprieties at the Department of Agriculture under former commissioner Richie Farmer.
The investigation stems from a lengthy audit conducted by state Auditor Adam Edelen that found a host of irregularities in the department during Farmer's administration, including instances when state hiring laws allegedly were circumvented and certain employees were given bonuses.
Edelen's findings were forwarded to several agencies, including the state Personnel Board, which investigates improprieties involving state merit — or non-political — employees.
The board on Friday approved investigating the auditor's conclusion that people were preselected for certain merit positions and that Farmer and other managers gave bonuses to people without receiving recommendations from the supervisors of the employees.
In addition, the board will investigate a separate, anonymous complaint that alleges a non-merit employee was given special training to qualify for a merit position, said Mark Sipek, executive director of the Personnel Board.
The board will issue its findings in one report.
Sipek said it's not clear how long the investigation will take. If the investigation finds criminal actions, the board can forward that information to prosecutors, Sipek said.
Guthrie True, a lawyer who represents Farmer, has dismissed the audit, saying it was "political and self-serving." True could not be reached for comment Friday.
James Comer, who succeeded Farmer as commissioner of agriculture, asked for the audit after taking office in January. Farmer, a former University of Kentucky basketball standout and candidate for lieutenant governor in 2011, was commissioner of agriculture for eight years.
The audit found that Farmer used state employees to take him hunting and shopping, mow his yard and chauffeur his dog between Frankfort and Louisville during the state fair because the hotel wouldn't allow dogs — all while the employees were on the clock.
In one instance, the audit found that Farmer had a state worker field-dress a doe that Farmer shot illegally while in a state vehicle on an unidentified local magistrate's farm in Franklin County.
Sipek said Friday that it's likely investigators with the Personnel Board will try to interview Farmer. He declined to talk to state auditors during their four-month investigation, but the Personnel Board has subpoena power.
The board already has acted on two previous complaints involving hiring during Farmer's tenure. In January, the Personnel Board found that the department did not follow the law when it changed the jobs of two high-level workers under Farmer.
The Executive Branch Ethics Commission, meanwhile, levied a $1,500 fine against one of the employees.