The fate of disgraced former Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner Richie Farmer is now in the hands of a judge, after the one-time University of Kentucky basketball star pleaded guilty to two felonies Friday in federal court.
U.S. District Judge Gregory Van Tatenhove will decide at a Jan. 14 sentencing whether to accept a plea deal brokered between Farmer, 44, and federal prosecutors.
The agreement calls for between 21 and 27 months behind bars and $120,500 in restitution in exchange for Farmer pleading guilty to charges relating to excess gifts purchased for visiting agriculture commissioners during a 2008 conference that were claimed by Farmer, hotel rooms used by Farmer’s family during the conference and salaries for personal friends hired into the department who did little to no work on state time.
Farmer, addressing the court before pleading guilty, acknowledged during his final term as agriculture commissioner he had certain individuals hired who claimed hours they had not worked and sometimes performed personal errands for him. He also stated he misappropriated funds for the conference to obtain items such as rifles, knives, cigar boxes and gift cards.
“I let down the people of Kentucky and I let down my family and friends, and for this I am truly sorry,” said Farmer, dressed in a black pinstripe suit with a blue shirt and red tie and standing alongside his attorney, Guthrie True.
Farmer, a member of the 1992 University of Kentucky basketball team dubbed “The Unforgettables,” is now a convicted felon, meaning he cannot run for public office, possess a firearm or vote. Federal prisoners are not eligible for parole, meaning Farmer will have to serve at least 21 months if Van Tatenhove approves the plea agreement.
True, speaking to reporters after Farmer’s plea, said his client is “glad to bring this chapter of his life to a close.”
When asked if he had any additional comment on his courtroom apology, Farmer said, “No, not at this time.”
“This has been a long process to get to where we are today,” True said. “There’ve been a lot of factors taken into consideration, and certainly Richie acknowledges his misjudgments that have brought him here today.”
True said he hopes Van Tatenhove will accept the plea deal in January.
“We feel it’s a fair agreement,” he said. “It’s an appropriate agreement, so we’re hopeful that he’ll accept it.”
As part of the plea deal, federal prosecutors will count any missing Department of Agriculture property turned over by Farmer toward his restitution.
True said most of the property in question centers on gifts purchased for the Southern Association of State Departments of Agriculture conference, though much of that was turned over during an audit performed last year by Auditor Adam Edelen.
Edelen recently called Farmer’s prosecution “one of the biggest public corruption cases we’ve seen in Kentucky.”
Current Agriculture Commissioner James Comer requested $15,000 of Farmer’s restitution to cover the cost of the audit, Assistant U.S. Attorney Ken Taylor said in court.
The remaining restitution will go to the state, including $63,000 levied by the Executive Branch Ethics Commission to settle 35 ethics charges, according to John Steffen, executive director of the commission.
The plea agreement also prevents a second multi-count federal indictment against Farmer.
U.S. Attorney Kerry Harvey said federal prosecutors were pursuing mail fraud charges against Farmer dating back to his campaign for agriculture commissioner.
Harvey said no one involved took joy in prosecuting a once-beloved Kentucky sports figure, calling the case “necessary.”
“Mr. Farmer, as we all know, started his political career really with unlimited promise and with the best wishes of all Kentuckians,” Harvey said. “It’s unfortunate that we have come to this day, but sadly the evidence established that too often Mr. Farmer looked upon his office and the Kentucky Department of Agriculture more as a personal playhouse than as an opportunity to render public service.”
Farmer and his sister, 48-year-old Rhonda Monroe, also pleaded guilty Friday in Franklin Circuit Court to charges of spending campaign funds totaling $10,500 for improper purposes.
Farmer is scheduled for a Jan. 17 sentencing in that case, while Monroe, a former assistant executive director of the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance, will be sentenced Nov. 1.
According to plea agreements reached with the Office of the Attorney General, prosecutors will recommend a one-year sentence for Farmer concurrent with his federal time and a two-year probation sentence for Monroe. She also cannot seek employment with the state for five years.
James Deckard, Monroe’s attorney, declined to comment until his client is sentenced.