Former Agriculture Commissioner Richie Farmer only took calls from two people Monday, the day state auditors released a scathing report about the Department of Agriculture under his watch: his attorney, Guthrie True, and his mother.
True, who told reporters Farmer would not personally respond to the audit, said Auditor Adam Edelen’s numerous findings of questionable spending and use of state resources at the department were “political and self-serving.”
“It’s pretty much what we expected,” True said.
Edelen unveiled the audit, which examined the department during Farmer’s term as commissioner from 2004 to 2011, with Agriculture Commissioner James Comer at a press conference Monday.
“The Department of Agriculture under Commissioner Farmer was a culture of entitlement and self-dealing, one in which there were no qualms about using the taxpayer dollar as their own,” Edelen said.
“The sheer volume and recklessness of the abuses shock the conscience.”
The report details missing equipment, employees chauffeuring Farmer on various trips and errands and doing work at his home, pre-selecting candidates for merit positions, signing his girlfriend’s timesheets when her supervisor refused, and overall mismanagement, including a $1.65 million fuel-testing lab that lost the state more than $744,000 in fiscal year 2011.
“I’m not going to lie, this was like raising the Titanic here,” Comer said. “But I will say, with the help of the auditor’s office and the conclusion of this report today, we can move forward at the Department of Agriculture.
“It’s been a distraction. It’s been very time-consuming. From day one, we’ve had a constant influx of employees that came into our office requesting to meet with the auditor’s office and wanting to talk with our personnel secretary to see if certain things that were done were legal or ethical.”
Farmer declined to speak with auditors because they didn’t specify what would be addressed during interviews, meaning he would have to respond to instances within the past eight years on the spot, True said.
The former commissioner and University of Kentucky star basketball player would have participated in the process if he’d been privy to specific subjects and what other witnesses alleged occurred and been able to review relevant documents, True wrote in a April 10 letter to the auditor’s office.
“We really didn’t know what was on the auditor’s radar screen, quite frankly,” True said in his office Monday. “They’ve been very vigilant about keeping to themselves the subject matter of the audit.”
The audit found instances of Farmer using employees for tasks like building a concrete basketball court and retaining wall at his marital home; driving him to doctor visits and for hunting and shopping trips, including a hunt where Farmer, early in his first term as commissioner, shot a doe from the passenger seat of his state-issued vehicle on the late Magistrate Ira Fannin’s farm and told a merit employee to field dress it for him; and moving a gun safe from his home’s garage to the basement. In some cases, employees were paid or received comp time, the audit says.
True said the use of employees to install a basketball court at Farmer’s home on state time was news to him and Farmer.
“That certainly wasn’t what he understood back in 2006 when it occurred,” True said. He noted concrete and supplies were delivered on a Friday and Thursday and said when work actually took place was unclear.
“We don’t believe that any work was performed on state time,” True said.
Auditors found two of the four employees charged the state for 12.5 hours of work while setting up the basketball court.
The report also highlights 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 UK basketball team, added to it.
True said the guns shouldn’t be an issue because they were purchased with donations, not state funds.
“Frankly, I don’t think the guns belong to the Department of Agriculture, but they were returned in an effort to eliminate an issue,” he said.
He also dismissed findings that Farmer failed to report gifts over $200, including $900 in concrete for the basketball court and a carved wooden hat and stand worth $1,360, because Farmer received gifts from fans of his days on the basketball court, not because of his constitutional office.
“If there are ethics issues out there, we will deal with ethics issues when they come up,” he said.
The report, which was forwarded to Attorney General Jack Conway’s office and other law enforcement agencies, doesn’t include anything that would “excite” any law enforcement agency into pursuing criminal charges, True said.
“I would be shocked, I would really be shocked if that were to occur,” he said.
Allison Martin, spokeswoman for Conway, said the office has received the audit but declined to comment on specific findings because it would be inappropriate.