Politics & Government

Former Kentucky organic-food supervisor faces ethics charges

FRANKFORT — A former marketing director for organic foods at the Kentucky Department of Agriculture allegedly used his state-issued email and car to do private consulting while on state time, an ethics panel charged Monday.

The Executive Branch Ethics Commission charged Michael Fitzgerald with nine counts of violating state ethics rules for allegedly working as a private inspector for out-of-state organic food producers while also working as agriculture marketing supervisor over the department's organic program.

Fitzgerald, who left the department in April, could not be reached for comment Monday afternoon. Robert Bullock, an attorney for Fitzgerald, also could not be reached for comment.

Much of the allegations contained in the charges released Monday concern events in 2010 and 2011 when Richie Farmer was commissioner of agriculture.

State Auditor Adam Edelen released an audit of Farmer's two terms as commissioner in April and found widespread questions about use of state resources and merit employees for personal benefit. The audit was conducted at the request of Commissioner James Comer, who took office in January.

According to the charges released Monday, Fitzgerald performed inspections for out-of-state organic food producers while on state time and while he was driving a state vehicle. He also used his state-issued email and state-issued cellphone to arrange the inspections, the ethics commission alleged.

Fitzgerald was being paid to do the inspections for out-of-state organic producers at the same time he was overseeing Kentucky's organic certification process. The charges also allege that the name of Fitzgerald's supervisor was falsified on some certification documents. Two names are required for a producer to be certified as organic in Kentucky.

Holly VonLuehrte, general counsel for the Kentucky Department of Agriculture, said she could not comment on why Fitzgerald left the agency.

"He is no longer with the department, and we are fully cooperating with the Executive Branch Ethics Commission," VonLuehrte said.

Fitzgerald, who left the agency April 15, has 20 days to respond to the allegations in the order released Monday. The charges will be heard by an administrative hearing officer.

John Steffen, executive director of the Executive Branch Ethics Commission, said he could not comment on whether the commission was investigating other problems at the Department of Agriculture during Farmer's tenure.

Steffen said commission members received Edelen's audit "and have reviewed that document. I can't confirm or deny that we have any other investigations."

Also on Monday, the commission accepted a settlement agreement with Billie Lee Johnson of Mount Sterling, who was formerly with the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet. Johnson agreed to pay a $750 fine for using her position with the cabinet to obtain credentials and passes for six friends to the Kentucky Motor Speedway. Johnson and her family and friends did not have to pay for the credentials.

The commission also charged Schuler Olt, the former general counsel for the Kentucky Retirement Systems, and Mark Jackson, a former special assistant for the Kentucky Department for Agriculture, with failing to file 2011 financial disclosure forms with the commission. Olt and Jackson have 20 days to respond to the allegations.