FRANKFORT — The state spent more than $7,000 for Agriculture Commissioner Richie Farmer to attend the Kentucky State Fair in Louisville over the last four years, mostly for hotel rooms so he would not have to commute 56 miles to his Frankfort home.
In 2010, for example, Farmer billed the state $1,886 for 11 nights at Louisville's Courtyard Marriott, sleeping in a $149-a-night room. The total included taxes and several local phone calls.
Farmer, a candidate for lieutenant governor in the May 17 Republican primary, already is being criticized for spending taxpayer money on a Lexington hotel suite during the boys' Sweet Sixteen basketball tournament, an educational trip to a Caribbean resort and a new sports utility vehicle for his use.
Farmer apologized Tuesday for his refusal earlier this month to participate in the state's six furlough days. He agreed to donate six days of his $110,346 salary to charities.
On Wednesday, Farmer spokesman Bill Clary defended the Agriculture Department's decision to pay for Farmer to stay in Louisville for more than a week during the state fair, although Farmer lives an hour's drive to the east.
Farmer sits on the fair's board, which meets regularly during the event, and he helps oversee the agricultural activities, such as livestock shows, Clary said. The fair "is an enormous undertaking every year for this department," Clary said.
"The commissioner believes it makes more sense for him to be there at the fair rather than traveling back and forth," Clary said. "He's there almost all day."
As the public learns more about Farmer's spending, he and his running mate, state Senate President David Williams, will have a difficult time convincing voters to trust them with even more taxpayer money, said Don Dugi, a political scientist at Transylvania University.
Apart from Farmer's recent history, Dugi said, Williams has drawn scrutiny for his personal gambling losses and for authorizing hundreds of thousands of dollars to renovate state Senate offices at the Capitol.
"They're going to be hard-pressed to make the case that they're fiscal conservatives. The facts just don't support it," Dugi said.
The Kentucky Democratic Party kept up its attack Wednesday on Farmer's $1,576, four-night hotel bill in Lexington during last month's Sweet Sixteen tournament. Democratic Chairman Dan Logsdon criticized Williams for saying Farmer's "celebrity status" helped justify the public expense.
Farmer played 20 years ago on the University of Kentucky men's basketball team.
Speaking at a Newport forum on Tuesday, Williams was asked whether it was fair for state taxpayers to pick up the tab for Farmer's Lexington hotel stay considering Farmer lives less than an hour's drive from Rupp Arena, where the tournament was held.
Farmer has said he attended the tournament to promote the Kentucky Proud program — a marketing effort to encourage Kentuckians to buy local food. Williams told his questioner he approved of the Lexington hotel stay and believed it was a bargain, considering Farmer's fame.
"Well, if you go to all the games at the state basketball tournament, before and after, and you're there with a Kentucky Proud T-shirt, working the crowd, promoting the situation, you know, $300 a day, you couldn't hire Richie Farmer and his celebrity status and be there to promote that," Williams said. "So I don't think that was a bad expenditure of state dollars for Richie Farmer to do it."
But Logsdon, the Democratic chairman, called on Farmer to reimburse the state for "a horrible waste of taxpayers' money."
"No matter who you are, celebrity or otherwise, when you're trusted to act as a steward of taxpayers' money, you don't charge the state $359 a night to stay down the road from your house," Logsdon said in a news release.