Politics & Government

New ag commissioner seeks audit of department during Richie Farmer's tenure

James Comer
says he has cultivated a wide base of support in preparing his bid for governor.
James Comer says he has cultivated a wide base of support in preparing his bid for governor.

FRANKFORT — State Agriculture Commissioner James Comer announced Wednesday morning that he had asked the state auditor to conduct a "sweeping review" of the agriculture department.

During his first five days on the job, Comer said employees came forward with several potentially troubling allegations involving the administration of his predecessor, fellow Republican Richie Farmer, a former University of Kentucky basketball star.

Issues have been raised about "time sheets, travel vouchers and (state credit card) purchases," Comer said.

Asked whether anything was missing, Comer said, "We have some inventory we're trying to get in."

One refrigerator bought with state money for Farmer's home office has turned up; another apparently is still missing.

Comer also confirmed there were allegations of employees on the books for work they did not do.

Attempts to reach Farmer for comment Wednesday were unsuccessful.

New state Auditor Adam Edelen said later Wednesday at a joint news conference with Comer that the unprecedented audit would be a broad look into the "administrative practices and fiscal management of the Department of Agriculture under Commissioner Farmer."

Edelen said four auditors have begun work.

"The conversations (we've had) about the size and scope of this audit justify the investigation, justifies our office bringing a team of folks here to ferret out any inefficiencies, any waste, any possible public corruption, and to institute and recommend policies for Commissioner Comer's administration," Edelen said.

The Department of Agriculture will pay as much as $15,000 for the audit, and anything over that will be borne by the auditor's office, Edelen said, so the size won't be limited by budget concerns.

"We'll follow the facts wherever they take us," he said. "There's clearly a cloud of suspicion that hangs over this office. It's my job as state auditor to either dispel it or hold people accountable."

Edelen said he had asked the department not to pay some requests for employee comp time and personal reimbursement until the audit is completed.

"We have some folks on our radar screen that we'll be looking into," Edelen said.

Neither Comer nor Edelen detailed specific allegations.

"Certainly Commissioner Farmer will be given the opportunity to share the facts as he knows them. ... Commissioner Farmer ought to welcome this audit. If he did nothing wrong, then he has nothing to worry about," Edelen said.

Comer said he and Edelen met two days ago and determined that the audit was the best way to go.

"The first thing we need to do is come in and do a broad audit, and once that's complete, the department will continue to do a great job and serve the agriculture community very well," Comer said.

He said morale in the department was low, and "we're going to start with a clean slate," he said.

Comer said he hoped that the audit could be completed within 60 days but that it would be up to the auditor. Asked whether anything might rise to the level of criminal fraud, Comer said: "I don't think so. I hope not."

Comer said he had not spoken with Farmer, who was the running mate of Republican Senate President David Williams in his unsuccessful bid for governor last fall. Comer said he assumed that Farmer would cooperate with the investigation.

During the campaign, Farmer raised eyebrows with several questionable expenditures during his administration, including installing two big-screen TVs at a cost of more than $6,600, and 10 chairs for $4,000. Farmer repeatedly failed to report personal use of his state vehicle; bought new vehicles for his department, including a $35,340 Chevy Suburban for his own use; used $1,600 in state funds to stay in a hotel suite in Lexington during the state Boys Sweet Sixteen basketball tournament; spent more than $7,000 over the course of his time in office to stay in Louisville during the annual Kentucky State Fair; and charged to the state nearly $10,000 for an eight-day trip to the Caribbean with three aides and their families.

Farmer also didn't take six days of furlough mandated for other state workers, saying he didn't believe in forced unpaid leave; after a Herald-Leader story, Farmer apologized to state workers and pledged to give the money to six charities.

One of Comer's first actions involved firing Farmer's girlfriend, Stephanie Sandmann, whom Farmer hired for $60,000 a year a week before the November election.

Comer and Edelen said that, although one is a Republican and the other a Democrat, politics would not play a role in the inquiry.

"There are no partisan considerations," Edelen said.

"It's not about party," Comer said. "I'm here because the agriculture community united and worked together to help me overcome a lot of obstacles in the election. I care about agriculture. I don't care about what's politically incorrect. I'm going to do the right thing."

Comer said he notified the state's congressional delegation and party leaders around the state that he was requesting the audit. Edelen said his office made courtesy calls to legislative leaders to tell them.

Asked how Republican leaders reacted, Comer said: "Everyone wants me to do the right thing to lead the department of agriculture. Everyone fully supports my decision."