FRANKFORT — Former University of Kentucky basketball star Richie Farmer was sentenced Tuesday to 27 months in prison for misusing state resources during his tenure as Kentucky's agriculture commissioner.
U.S. District Judge Gregory Van Tatenhove ordered Farmer to pay $120,500 in restitution, with $105,500 going to the state and $15,000 going to the Kentucky Department of Agriculture.
Farmer, 44, a guard for the 1991-92 UK team dubbed "The Unforgettables" for their gutsy play, had pleaded guilty in September to two counts of misappropriating government resources while overseeing the Agriculture Department. Farmer, a Republican, was agriculture commissioner from 2004 to 2011.
"Certainly, I made some mistakes and I made some poor judgments, and for that I'm truly sorry," Farmer said in a brief statement in court. "I just want to say publicly I am sorry for all those things. ... I am truly, truly sorry for what I've done."
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Farmer also is scheduled to be sentenced Friday before Franklin Circuit Court Phillip Shepherd to a one-year concurrent sentence. He pleaded guilty in a separate case to one count of violating state finance law, relating to 2008 campaign expenditures.
In April 2013, Farmer was charged by a federal grand jury with four counts of misappropriating money and property and one count of soliciting property in exchange for a state grant. Each charge carried a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. He initially pleaded not guilty to all charges.
Prosecutors alleged that Farmer had created political jobs for close friends who performed little or no work. Those employees allegedly ran personal errands for Farmer, including building a basketball court at his home in Frankfort and chauffeuring his dog, while being paid by the state.
The indictment alleged that Farmer took a variety of state property, including electronic equipment, guns, knives, refrigerators and filing cabinets. Farmer's extended family stayed in hotel rooms that were paid for by the state during the Kentucky State Fair in 2009 and 2010, the indictment alleged.
Farmer also faced a 42-count charge brought by the Executive Branch Ethics Commission. Those charges included misuse of state employees, misuse of state resources, improper use of grants and improper use of Kentucky Proud marketing funds.
Much of the information in the indictment and in the ethics charges stemmed from state Auditor Adam Edelen's review of the agriculture department after Farmer left office in 2012. The audit found that a "toxic culture of entitlement" permeated the department under Farmer.
Van Tatenhove said he would recommend that Farmer serve his sentence at a federal camp at Manchester in Clay County, Farmer's home county. The decision of where he serves the sentence will be made by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons.
Farmer will be free until March 18, when he must report to prison.
Defense attorney J. Guthrie True had argued that a 21-month sentence would be sufficient, but Van Tatenhove chose to go with the greater sentence sought by prosecutors.
"Breach of the public trust is a really serious crime," Van Tatenhove said. "Part of my job is to hold you accountable for that."
The judge took note of Farmer's basketball triumphs and said: "Nothing I'm saying today should take away from those accomplishments."
Van Tatenhove then added his two cents' worth on whether Farmer's retired jersey should still hang from the Rupp Arena rafters. Some people have questioned whether a uniform honoring a soon-to-be federal prison inmate should still hang there.
Van Tatenhove left no doubt about his opinion, saying it "should remain hanging from now until eternity."
Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, said reaction in Clay County about Farmer is "one of quite mixed emotions."
"We're very sad that this occurred, but we hope that this is a chapter in his life that he can get behind him and move forward.
"He has three small children, parents and relatives who have all been affected by this. We hope this brings to a conclusion this matter."
Few athletes in the state's history were as beloved as Farmer. He became a folk hero in Clay County in the 1980s, leading the school in the Eastern Kentucky mountains to three state title games and the 1987 Sweet Sixteen championship.
By the time Farmer ended his high school career with 51 points in the 1988 state finals, his popularity was so great that then-Kentucky coach Eddie Sutton offered him a Wildcats scholarship.
Farmer and his fellow UK classmates Deron Feldhaus, John Pelphrey and Sean Woods stuck with Kentucky through the Sutton-era NCAA probation. The quartet helped Rick Pitino rebuild Kentucky basketball. In 1998, Farmer was inducted into the Dawahares/Kentucky High School Athletic Association Hall of Fame. The Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame in Louisville — the statewide sports hall — inducted Farmer in 2002.
In 2011, his last year as agriculture commissioner, Farmer ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor on a ticket with former state Senate President David Williams of Burkesville. They lost to incumbent Gov. Steve Beshear and his running mate, Louisville Mayor Jerry Abramson.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Kenneth Taylor said "no one takes pleasure in seeing one of Kentucky's favorite sons take a fall like this."
Nevertheless, Taylor said Farmer's sentence should send a message to others who would abuse the public trust, who want to know "where the edge of the road is."
"A message has to be sent," Taylor said.
True, Farmer's defense attorney, said that for someone like Farmer, who climbed higher in life, "the risk is the higher fall when you make a mistake."
"I am one bad decision from being in that same spot," True said.
True then argued that a 21-month sentence would send the same message and would be the same deterrent to others as a 27-month sentence.
"I would submit that 21 months is sufficient," True said.
But Judge Van Tatenhove, citing French historian Alexis de Tocqueville, said, "Liberty cannot endure without morality." (The judge took liberties with the quote; what de Tocqueville actually said is "Liberty cannot be established without morality, nor morality without faith.")
In any case, the judge said the punishment must be about "upholding the public trust," and chose the greater sentence for Farmer.