Politics & Government

Board: Agriculture Department under Richie Farmer violated state hiring laws

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 Department of Agriculture did not follow the law when it changed the jobs of two high-level workers under former Commissioner Richie Farmer, the state Personnel Board said Friday.

The board accepted a 57-page investigative report from its staff on the agriculture department's decision to move two employees in late 2010 from politically appointed non-merit positions to merit jobs that would protect them from dismissal after Farmer left office at the end of 2011.

The report offered three recommendations on handling job changes but did not recommend any criminal charges.

Board executive Mark Sipek said he did not recommend criminal charges because the statute of limitations had expired, a new administration with Commissioner James Comer is in place, and one of the employees involved was fired by Comer earlier this month.

Farmer lost a bid in November for lieutenant governor. He was on the losing ticket with Republican gubernatorial nominee David Williams. He could not seek re-election in 2011 as agriculture commissioner because of term limits.

The two agriculture department employees who were moved to merit positions in 2010 — Danita Fentress-Laird and Kathryn Willis — voluntarily vacated their merit jobs as assistant directors in July after the personnel board's investigation became public, and they returned to their previous jobs as political appointees.

Willis remains in the department, but Fentress-Laird was dismissed by Comer, Sipek said.

The Personnel Board's report on the case found that the agriculture department did not follow the law in filling the two assistant director positions.

It said the department did not give appropriate consideration to applicants' seniority, qualifications, performance record, performance evaluations or conduct in filling the positions.

"There was no meaningful process to review all the candidates in this case and, therefore, the appointments were not based on merit and fitness," the report said.

Veteran candidates were not seriously considered, as the law requires, it said.

Concerning the two employees, the report said Fentress-Laird's attempt to assign an appointment date of Dec. 27, 2010, to her own appointment was an attempt to circumvent the state merit law and burrow into the merit system.

"No good reason was asserted why the appointment should be effective on Dec. 27 other than to ensure that she would gain status" before Farmer's term as commissioner ended, it said.

The report said Willis' status with respect to the merit law is "less certain."

Farmer, Fentress-Laird and Willis could not be immediately reached Friday for comment.

The department's response to the Personnel Cabinet defending its selection method also is a violation of law because it contained false statements, the report said.

"The portion of the letter that defends the KDA's selection method by stating, 'the KDA states that although there were numerous applications made by current and non-current state employees to the posted position, there were extremely few that met the minimum qualifications for the positions' is false," the report said.

The board ordered the department to arrange with the Personnel Cabinet to receive training on how to properly prepare job position descriptions and get staff training on appropriate procedures for preparing job announcements.

Sipek said the case is closed.

Larry Gillis, vice chairman of the Personnel Board, requested the board's investigation last year. He recused himself from participating in discussions about it because he had applied for the jobs.

Gillis, who is assistant director of the Personnel Cabinet, said in a letter last week to Sipek that the investigative report "helps to uphold and safeguard the merit system."

Comer sent a letter Friday to the Personnel Board that said he was aware that the board had "some personnel matters before you from the KDA's previous administration."

"Without commenting on these matters, I assure you that hiring and retaining qualified staff and providing a healthy working environment are my utmost priorities," Comer wrote.

He also told the board that he has asked state Auditor Adam Edelen for a "full and sweeping audit of the department, its operations and expenditures."

Sipek said the board has decided to defer acting on an anonymous email request to expand its inquiry of the department until Edelen's audit is completed.

The anonymous email from an agriculture department employee alleged that Jennifer Ledford, who was hired last year by the department as a political appointee, was improperly given a merit job.

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