Politics & Government

Two women at center of Agriculture Department investigation resign

Richie Farmer
Richie Farmer

FRANKFORT — Two state Department of Agriculture employees at the center of a Personnel Board investigation have vacated their new merit jobs and returned to their previous posts as political appointees.

The Personnel Board unanimously decided on Friday to continue investigating the department's decision to place the two women in merit jobs, which would protect them from dismissal after Commissioner of Agriculture Richie Farmer leaves office at the end of the year.

Farmer is running for lieutenant governor this year on the Republican ticket of gubernatorial nominee David Williams.

Nicole Liberto, general counsel for the department, said Danita Fentress-Laird and Kathryn Willis resigned voluntarily on Thursday from the merit positions of assistant directors, which they were given late last year. Farmer reappointed each to their politically appointed positions of directors.

Liberto said after Friday's board meeting that Farmer did not ask the women to resign from their controversial new jobs. The women did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Bill Clary, a spokesman for Farmer, said the commissioner does not comment on personnel matters.

Personnel Board vice chairman Larry B. Gillis requested the investigation of the job changes.

Gillis, who had applied for the jobs in question and also serves as assistant director of the Personnel Cabinet, declined to comment Friday on the board's decision to pursue the investigation.

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

Gillis, who was elected by state workers to serve on the board, has said the investigation is needed to determine whether the department followed proper procedures.

He has claimed the hirings have the appearance of pre-selection and an effort to burrow the workers into the merit system. He said his request for an investigation had nothing to do with politics.

The merit system protects workers from being dismissed without cause. Political appointees, also called non-merit workers, serve at the pleasure of their appointing officer.

The agriculture department has told the Personnel Board that the job changes had been approved by the state Personnel Cabinet and hundreds had applied for them.

The cabinet is charged with attracting and developing a strong workforce in state government. The Personnel Board tries to safeguard the merit system for state workers who are not politically appointed.

Mark Sipek, executive director of the Personnel Board, told board members Friday that the investigation should not take too long.

Board member Doug Sapp said the investigation should proceed, noting the interest in it of House State Government Chairman Mike Cherry, D-Princeton.

Cherry wrote a letter to Sipek on June 2, saying that he is concerned that Agriculture Department officials may have violated legislation he successfully sponsored last year that deals with "burrowing" and giving veterans preferential treatment when filling state jobs.

"I am not convinced that the veterans interviewed received an unbiased consideration for either of these positions," Cherry said.

The department has said about 200 people applied for the positions and the minimum required number of veterans were interviewed.

It was also announced at Friday's Personnel Board meeting that Suzanne Cassidy of Crescent Springs, who has been chairman, has resigned to take a position on the state Crime Victims' Compensation Board.

Retired circuit judge Tommy Chandler of Webster has been appointed by Gov. Steve Beshear to replace her on the board. Chandler is to be sworn in next month.

It is not known who will be the board's new chairman.