Former Agriculture Commissioner Richie Farmer oversaw “a toxic culture of entitlement” during his eight years with the Kentucky Department of Agriculture, a report by state Auditor Adam Edelen says.
The audit, released today, details misuse of state resources and employees for his personal benefit, timesheet and travel reimbursement abuses by employees close to Farmer, and questionable spending of state and federal dollars.
A key feature of the report was the 2008 Southern Association of State Departments of Agriculture conference in Lexington that cost taxpayers more than $96,000 and included gifts such as 25 Remington rifles worth $449 each, 52 knives, 50 cigar boxes, 30 $50 mall gift cards, 175 watches and 50 bottles of Makers Mark bourbon.
Only 13 of 17 member commissioners attended the SASDA conference, and Farmer, who was the association’s president at the time, took a majority of the remaining gifts to his home, the audit shows.
He personally signed for 13 rifles, and seven of those were returned to auditors during their investigation, according to the audit. One of the rifles had number 32, Farmer’s jersey number during his playing days on the University of Kentucky basketball team, added to it.
The department, which tried to hide or disguise its financial support for the event, also paid more than $15,000 to register 53 department employees for the SASDA conference, and many of those were used as staff for the event. That cost the state more than $53,000 for more than 2,000 hours and overtime pay, the audit says.
“The extravagance of this conference that had less than 200 attendees shows a stunning disregard for the difficulties faced by Kentuckians who work for a living,” Edelen said in a statement.
Farmer, who held office from 2004 to 2011, reportedly had state employees construct a basketball court at his home and move a gun safe from his garage to his basement, the audit found. Employees also drove Farmer on shopping and hunting trips, including an instance where he asked an employee to leave a training course early to drive him to an outdoor sportsman’s store in southern Indiana.
During one hunting trip at an unidentified magistrate’s farm early during Farmer’s tenure, the former commissioner shot a doe while in the passenger seat of his state-issued vehicle and told the driver, a merit employee in the department, to cut and bag the doe’s back straps and tenderloins, the audit says.
Farmer told employees he was commissioner 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and workers were under the impression that they were on the clock while accompanying him on trips, personal or work-related, the audit says.
The report also brings up questionable use of state property and funds. Farmer apparently gave his family gift baskets comprised of items purchased by the department and promotional samples donated by Kentucky Proud vendors; bought two refrigerators, including one his ex-wife used at her workplace; and purchased two 60-inch TVs, one of which was mounted in his office, for more than $4,000.
The department paid $60 for expedited shipping so the TVs would arrive in time for the 2010 NCAA men’s basketball tournament, staff told auditors.
Farmer also had rooms registered under employees’ names to put his family in hotels during the Kentucky State Fair in 2009 and 2010 and SASDA conference in 2008, the audit found.
“The report paints a clear picture of an administration that had no qualms about treating taxpayer resources as its own,” Edelen said in a statement.
“The former commissioner had state employees on state time take him hunting and shopping, mow his yard, build a basketball court in his backyard and even chauffeur his dog.
“He showered himself with gifts and office equipment and rewarded friends with jobs. These are just some of the documented abuses that should outrage every Kentuckian.”
Edelen performed the audit at the request of current Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, who took office in January. In a statement, Comer called the review “a serious and necessary step” to restoring confidence in the department.
“I appreciate the auditor’s commitment to this cause, and I hope we’ve set the standard for bipartisan cooperation in the interest of better government for all Kentuckians,” he said.
The report will be forwarded to Attorney General Jack Conway, the Executive Branch Ethics Commission, IRS, state Department of Revenue, Office of Inspector General of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Personnel Board, according to a press release.
A team of seven auditors reviewed thousands of documents such as emails, invoices, timesheets, travel vouchers, reports and interviewed more than 50 people, including current and former department staff, Kentucky Proud vendors and Farmer’s ex-wife, the release says.
Farmer declined to be interviewed.
Edelen and Comer were set to announce the audit’s findings at a 10 a.m. press conference today at Edelen’s office.