Nation & World

Grand jury indicts former Kentucky Agriculture Secretary Richie Farmer

A federal grand jury has indicted former Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner Richie Farmer for allegedly misusing property and more than $450,000 in funds during his eight years at the helm of the state Department of Agriculture.

A grand jury charged Farmer, 43, with four counts of misappropriating property and money, and one count of soliciting property to influence agriculture department business. Each charge carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

In addition, federal authorities will attempt to make Farmer repay $450,000, the amount he allegedly took from the department. The alleged misappropriation of public funds alleged in the indictment occurred from 2008 to 2011.

Farmer, a former University of Kentucky basketball player, will be arraigned April 30 in Lexington. Guthrie True, Farmer's lawyer, scheduled a news conference at his Frankfort office for 11:45 a.m. Monday.

U.S. Attorney Kerry B. Harvey said the investigation into alleged improprieties at the Department of Agriculture during Farmer's tenure continues. Harvey declined to say whether others could face federal charges.

Attorney General Jack Conway declined to comment Monday on a possible separate state investigation. Conway did say that investigators with his office have cooperated with federal authorities on the case against Farmer.

Harvey, speaking Monday during a news conference at his Lexington office, said Farmer created political jobs for friends — including his girlfriend — who received substantial salaries but often did not report for work or did little or no work. Some of those employees also ran personal errands for Farmer, Harvey said, including "building a basketball court for Farmer, placing flooring in Farmer's attic and organizing Farmer's personal effects."

Harvey said Farmer also ordered extravagant gifts for attendees of the Southern Association of State Department of Agriculture in 2008, which the Kentucky Department of Agriculture hosted. Fifteen agriculture commissioners from Southern states attended the event, but Farmer ordered higher numbers of gifts, including 25 customized Remington rifles, 52 Case knives, 50 cigar boxes and 30 gift cards.

Harvey said Farmer took possession of some of those additional gifts for his personal use.

Farmer also reserved hotel rooms in the names of state employees for the Kentucky State Fair in 2009 and 2010, but the rooms were used by members of his extended family, Harvey said.

"Farmer wrongfully appropriated thousands of dollars' worth of services, guns, knives, electronics and other goods throughout his tenure as Commissioner of Agriculture," the indictment said.

Farmer also is accused of trying to solicit a bribe from an automobile dealership in exchange for a grant from the state Department of Agriculture to stage an all-terrain vehicle safety course.

Harvey declined to say what Farmer accepted from the dealership in exchange for the grant. But in state ethics charges filed in March, Farmer was accused of receiving three all-terrain vehicles in exchange for promising state grants.

The indictment follows a string of ethical and legal troubles for the 2011 Republican candidate for lieutenant governor.

In March, the state Executive Branch Ethics Commission charged Farmer with 42 counts of violating state ethics laws, the most ever issued by the panel against one person. The previous high for ethics charges against one person was 16.

The ethics panel also charged seven other people, six of whom are former or current employees of the department.

The ethics charges against Farmer included misuse of state employees, misuse of state resources, improper use of grants and improper use of "Kentucky Proud" marketing funds. The ethics case remains open.

Most of the allegations against Farmer stem from an investigation last year by State Auditor Adam Edelen that said a "toxic culture of entitlement" permeated the agriculture department under Farmer, who was commissioner from 2004 to 2011. The report found that Farmer used state workers to build a basketball court in his backyard, take him hunting and shopping, mow his yard, and chauffeur his dog between Frankfort and Louisville during the state fair — all while on the clock.

Current Agriculture Commissioner James Comer said in September that the FBI had begun investigating problems at the department under Farmer's tenure. Holly VonLuehtre, chief of staff for Comer, said last week that she was not aware of any current employees being subpoenaed to testify before the federal grand jury.

Farmer played basketball for UK from 1988 to 1992. He averaged 7.6 points in his collegiate career, but he gained iconic status in Kentucky as a member of "The Unforgettables," the Kentucky team barred from postseason play for two years before losing to Duke in the 1992 regional NCAA finals.

Before that, he led Clay County to the high school Sweet Sixteen championship game three times, earning the "Mr. Basketball" title his senior year.