Herald-Leader exclusive: Equipment worth nearly $500,000 missing from state Agriculture Department

Richie Farmer at the 2010 Keeneland Spring Meet.
Richie Farmer at the 2010 Keeneland Spring Meet.

About a half-million dollars in state property apparently has disappeared from the Kentucky Department of Agriculture or cannot be accounted for properly.

According to inventory records obtained by the Herald-Leader, more than 100 state computers are missing, including some issued personally to former Agriculture Commissioner Richie Farmer, who left office earlier this year after serving eight years.

The state issued Farmer four new Dell laptops in 2010, and he has not returned any of them to the Department of Agriculture, according to the inventory records.

New Agriculture Commissioner James Comer was sworn in Jan. 2. On Wednesday, Comer — in a joint news conference with new state Auditor Adam Edelen — announced that Comer had asked Edelen to do a sweeping review of the Agriculture Department.

Comer and Edelen acknowledged Wednesday that there was concern about missing state equipment. Comer's office gave the list of lost property to the auditors.

"This is further evidence of the cloud of suspicion that hangs over the Department of Agriculture," Edelen said Thursday about the records of lost property. "My office is certainly aware of this part of a much broader and sweeping investigation."

Comer said in a statement Thursday: "Our employees are in the process of compiling information and working with the auditor's office to assist with their examination of the previous administration. There are going to be lots of questions through this process, but we are going to get answers to them and we will accept nothing less than full transparency and accountability."

When Comer took office, he terminated 16 non-merit employees, including Farmer's girlfriend, Stephanie Sandmann. She had been hired to a $60,000-a-year job in the Agriculture Department in the waning days of Farmer's unsuccessful campaign as running mate to gubernatorial candidate and Senate President David Williams. Those 16 former employees turned over all state property not already reported as missing.

Farmer is the only person who has not returned all department-issued equipment, according to the inventory record, said Holly VonLuehrte, general counsel at the Department of Agriculture.

Attempts to contact Farmer on Thursday were unsuccessful. No one answered the door at his Frankfort home, although vehicles were in his driveway.

Some of the state property was last seen at Farmer's home, according to the department's records, including several laptops. One of the $979 laptops was issued May 2, 2010, and two more were issued the next day.

Altogether, at least $10,842 in computers issued to Farmer or directly to his office appear to be gone.

In all, the list of missing inventory obtained from the Department of Agriculture details 171 items worth about $334,000, including computers, digital cameras, printers, copiers and other equipment.

Some of the lost equipment might date to the late 1990s under the administration of Farmer's predecessor, Billy Ray Smith.

Whether any of the losses were reported to the state is unclear.

An additional 103 items worth $146,000 that were supposed to have been given back to the state as surplus do not have the required disposition numbers that acknowledge they have been returned. Department of Agriculture officials are unable to say whether the goods are missing or if, in fact, they have been returned.

The Finance and Administration Cabinet, which administers state surplus equipment, could not immediately say how many of the items might have been returned. Cindy Lanham, Finance Cabinet spokeswoman, said they were able to find two items — a laser printer and a computer — that had been returned on May 16, 2010.

Without proper records, which appear to be missing from the Agriculture Department, looking for equipment returned before 2009 will be "like looking for a needle in a haystack," Lanham said.

Smith, the former agriculture commissioner, served on Comer's transition team and said Thursday that he did not remember any significant losses of computers, vehicles or other equipment during his tenure, from 1996 to 2003.

Smith said the scale of the missing equipment was "a surprise."

He doesn't remember the department having any vans, and computers in the field were a rarity in his time, Smith said.

But even one missing computer "would have been a big deal," he said. "Anything that goes missing that's state property, it's a concern."

The Kentucky Department of Agriculture, which has about 250 employees and a $29 million budget, is the state's largest regulatory agency, responsible for the pumps at the gas station, weights at livestock sales, rides at amusement parks and fairs, scanners at grocery stores, livestock and racehorse health, water quality, promoting fruit and vegetable sales, and more.

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