Politics & Government

Investigation sought of Department of Agriculture personnel moves

Richie Farmer, who won the Republican primary race for Lt. Governor, celebrated his win at the Griffin Gate Marriott Resort and Spa in Lexington on May 17, 2011. Charles Bertram | Staff
Richie Farmer, who won the Republican primary race for Lt. Governor, celebrated his win at the Griffin Gate Marriott Resort and Spa in Lexington on May 17, 2011. Charles Bertram | Staff ALL

FRANKFORT — The Kentucky Personnel Board's vice chairman is asking it to investigate whether the state Department of Agriculture illegally placed two political appointees in protected merit positions.

Larry B. Gillis, who was elected by state workers to serve on the board, said the investigation is needed to determine whether Danita Fentress-Laird and Kathryn Willis were moved late last year from appointed positions as division directors into merit positions as assistant directors without following proper procedures.

Gillis, who had applied for the jobs in question and also serves as assistant director of the Personnel Cabinet, said the move has "the appearance of pre-selection and the attempt to burrow them into the merit system," which protects workers from being dismissed without cause. Political appointees, also called non-merit workers, serve at the pleasure of their appointing officer.

Agriculture Commissioner Richie Farmer, who is the Republican nominee for lieutenant governor on a ticket with GOP gubernatorial nominee David Williams, will be leaving his post later this year.

The seven-member Personnel Board is scheduled to take up Gillis' request Friday.

A copy of the eight-page request, which was submitted May 5, was obtained through the state's Open Records Act.

The state Personnel Board is charged with safeguarding the merit system for government employees and serving as an impartial judge of employee-employer disputes for state government. The state Personnel Cabinet is charged with attracting and developing a strong work force in state government.

Bill Clary, a spokesman for the agriculture department, said Wednesday the department normally does not comment on personnel matters. However, he noted the Personnel Cabinet reviewed and approved the personnel action in question.

The agriculture department's general counsel, Nicole Liberto, is scheduled to discuss the issue with the Personnel Board on Friday.

Gillis, of Lawrenceburg, said in an email message Monday he is prohibited as a member of the board from making public comment about issues before the board.

In his request, Gillis said the agriculture department submitted requests last Sept. 27 to establish two new assistant director positions.

He said the jobs were posted as "competitive" rather than "promotional," allowing the department to consider candidates that were not currently state merit employees.

He also said an assistant director position, with benefits included, pays about $80,000 a year.

"With the current economic climate and tight state agency budgets, it would seem improbable that Agriculture had an extra $160,000 laying around and needed two assistant directors," Gillis said.

It appeared, Gillis said, the assistant director positions were established to move the division directors into them, with no intention of backfilling the division directors.

"By doing this, the incumbents would retain their current duties but gain merit status," he said. "To this day, the division director positions have not been filled."

Gillis, a merit employee, said he applied for both positions. But Fentress-Laird and Willis got the appointments last Dec. 27.

Gillis said he believes the agriculture department wanted the two women in protected merit positions and off of a 12-month probationary period before a new commissioner takes office in January.

If the workers were pre-selected and all candidates didn't receive fair consideration, Gillis said, the agriculture department may have violated state laws dealing with the merit system. Penalties for such violations range from six months in jail to being ineligible to work for the state for five years.

If the investigation determines pre-selection occurred and the agriculture department did not follow the law, the positions in question should be vacated, Gillis said.

Gillis included more than 100 pages of documents in his request for an investigation.

He has worked in state government for more than 18 years, primarily in personnel for six agencies. A check with the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance showed he has never made any contribution to a political candidate or organization.

His four-year term on the Personnel Board expires June 30, 2014.

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