Politics & Government

Watchdog Report: Richie Farmer's excesses allegedly many

Current Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, left, and state Auditor Adam Edelen on Monday reported findings from a scathing audit of the Kentucky Department of Agriculture during the tenure of Richie Farmer, Comer's predecessor.
Current Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, left, and state Auditor Adam Edelen on Monday reported findings from a scathing audit of the Kentucky Department of Agriculture during the tenure of Richie Farmer, Comer's predecessor. HERALD-LEADER

Richie Farmer used an extravagant 2008 convention for fellow agriculture commissioners from Southern states to stock his own gun rack and bar, possibly at taxpayer expense, according to a scathing audit released last week.

He planned it that way, auditors alleged.

The Southern Association of State Departments of Agriculture has 17 members, including Kentucky; the host state typically gives each member commissioner some nice gifts, representative of local flavor.

When the convention came to Kentucky, Farmer ordered extra of everything: instead of 17 rifles, he ordered 25; instead of 17 knives, he ordered 52. Days before the conference, with the guest list firmed up, the Kentucky Department of Agriculture knew it didn't need $1,500 in shopping gift cards but bought them anyway.

"It is our understanding that the excess orders were made at the direction of (Farmer) with the majority of the excess items reportedly taken to (Farmer's) home after the conference," auditors wrote in their report.

Those excess items include 13 Remington rifles that Farmer signed for personally as the buyer.

After current Agriculture Commissioner James Comer and state Auditor Adam Edelen announced plans in January for a sweeping audit of Farmer's eight-year tenure, Farmer returned some items issued to him, including computers. But state Department of Agriculture officials were stunned when, on Jan. 17, Farmer brought in seven rifles, which his attorney, Guthrie True, said were left over from the 2008 convention.

Six other rifles, worth at least $2,694, have not been recovered, and True has said he does not know where they are.

Comer said Monday that the Kentucky Department of Agriculture views those as state property and wants them back, possibly to sell to help pay for the cost of the audit.

"I'm working on a letter to Guthrie True regarding the returning of other items," Holly VonLuehrte, the department's general counsel, said Thursday. "We're issuing a formal letter saying we'd like (the other items) to be returned."

The agriculture department has not reported the rifles as stolen, she said.

"That would be the commissioner's call," she said. "We're not at that point. Whether or not Richie Farmer is pursued with criminal charges has nothing to do with the Department of Agriculture. ... We just want to move on."

Stan Billingsley, a retired Kentucky judge who runs LawReader.com, said the rifles, if considered stolen, could produce felony charges.

"The allegations made in the audit would support a prosecutor in asking the grand jury to consider this," he said. "The grand jury would get additional facts, and maybe they would decide not to indict. That's their call. But the allegations present a classic case of felony theft."

Attorney General Jack Conway's office is examining the auditor's findings. Also, the Executive Branch Ethics Commission will review the auditor's report at its May 14 meeting. The audit also has been referred to the Internal Revenue Service, the state Personnel Board and federal fish and wildlife officials.

Farmer's attorney, True, said it was his understanding that the minimum number of guns that could be ordered was 25.

"I don't know how the decision was made on how many to order. Everybody's operating under the assumption that Commissioner Farmer made all the decisions on how many to order. I don't think that's correct," True said. "I don't think Commissioner Farmer was personally placing the orders for every item."

True said he thinks some agriculture department employees were less than truthful with auditors.

"The critical thing in the audit is that the auditor was told these things," True said. "I guess the auditor reported what he was told."

But True would not say whether any other items ended up with Farmer, as alleged, according to the auditor's report, by department employees and Rebecca Farmer, Richie Farmer's soon-to-be ex-wife.

"I haven't combed through cigars, and bottles of this and bottles of that at this time," True said. "None of these items are stolen items. They were gifted. A lot of it hinges on who had the right to dispose of the gifts."

Farmer refused to meet with the auditors to answer questions.

No gifts, not even those Farmer received legitimately as a commissioner of the Southern Association of State Departments of Agriculture (SASDA) were ever reported to the ethics commission during Farmer's tenure. He did not file a disclosure form for 2011, which was due to the commission April 16, but True said he will file.

And there were a lot of gifts.

Although there were only 17 SASDA member commissioners, including Farmer, the Kentucky Department of Agriculture, or KDA, bought more than $61,000 in gifts. In addition to the guns and knives, there were cigar boxes and cigars, watches, gift cards, bourbon, wine and wooden hats for the convention. Items worth hundreds of dollars more apparently were donated.

Farmer's attorney continues to maintain that no state resources were used on gifts, but state auditors determined at least $20,000 in public money was commingled into the account used to buy the gifts, which were purchased by state employees on state time.

"This calls into question the appropriateness of the KDA spending money for these gifting purposes," according to the audit.

In the end, 13 commissioners, including Farmer, attended the 2008 convention, and only a few brought wives or guests, leaving thousands of dollars in goodies behind.

Where did it all go?

A lot of it, according to testimony from Rebecca Farmer, ended up in their house. She told auditors that in addition to the guns, also kept at Richie Farmer's house were knives and other excess gift items.

Those included personalized cigar boxes, each of which contained two cigars.

After the April conference, two state workers took out the cigars, wrapped them in bags and damp cloths, and sent them home with Farmer, they told auditors.

Rebecca Farmer told auditors that Richie Farmer kept several cigars and cigar boxes and later gave away some as gifts, but she did not recall who received the pricey smokes.

For the spouses and guests of commissioners at the convention, the department bought 30 shopping-mall gift cards worth $50 each. According to auditors, only about 15 people received the cards; "the remaining gift cards went home with the former commissioner," according to the audit.

Purchases for the convention weren't the only things that went missing: according to the auditors, donated bourbon also disappeared.

According to a KDA staff member, Farmer personally handled the Maker's Mark request, getting 17 bottles with individual agriculture commissioners' names on them. The staffer didn't know why 33 more bottles, with the Kentucky Proud logo and Farmer's name and title, were donated, whether at Farmer's suggestion or the distiller's.

In the end, only 12 bottles were given to the visiting agriculture commissioners, auditors found.

Three cases of Maker's Mark, specially decorated with white wax and "SASDA 2008," ended up in the unfinished portion of Richie Farmer's basement, according to Rebecca Farmer. (Auditors said that other KDA personnel also took home bottles.)

Two months after the convention, the agriculture department, using money in the convention account, bought 175 watches at a total cost of $11,470, reportedly as gifts of appreciation to department employees who worked at the convention.

One problem: There were not 175 employees who worked on the convention. About 40 watches (worth about $2,640) were given out at a picnic; no one seems to know where the other $8,830 in watches went, according to the auditors.

How the money was raised

Although Farmer and his staff maintained during his administration that no state money would be used for the convention, which cost $208,852, that was not the case. The auditors found that taxpayers paid more than $96,000 — about $30,000 in state money and the rest in the cost of state workers' time.

"It is unclear what overall benefit Kentucky received from these expenses," according to the audit.

But the state could have been on the hook for far more: According to the audit, Farmer floated the idea of awarding $40,000 "grants" to multiple commodity groups, with the stipulation that a portion be laundered back into the convention in the form of "donations."

According to the auditors, "the suggestion was not supported internally by other KDA personnel."

But one commodity group did go along. According to the auditors, a $15,000 grant went to the Kentucky Dairy Development Council, with the understanding that $10,000 would be used to support the convention. So the council bought $7,900 worth of souvenirs and other promotional items, some with the Kentucky Proud logo, for conference attendees, as well as office furniture for the agriculture department.

Maury Cox, executive director of the Kentucky Dairy Development Council, said he remembers the grant but not the strings.

"Yes, we did receive a grant, but there was nothing said that part of that money was going back to KDA for the convention," Cox said. However, Eunice Schlappi, who organized the convention, also was the department's dairy marketing specialist at the time, and dairy council money was often used at her discretion, Cox said.

"I wasn't aware of it. We weren't aware that's where any of it was going, but it was at her discretion," Cox said. Asked if it was good use of the money, Cox said, "That may not be my call; it's not something I think we would want to continue, I'll say that. We were not informed that the money was going to be used that way. That portion of it is news to me."

Farmer's staff also covered convention costs by registering 53 department employees as attendees, at a cost of more than $15,000. Most of the employees were at the convention to work; few attended any sessions, and at least one said he wasn't there at all. Most had no idea the state paid registrations in their names, they told auditors.

"Based on interviews with KDA staff and the review of documentation, it appears KDA attempted to conceal or disguise much of its financial support used to offset the 2008 SASDA conference costs," according to the audit.

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