The Personnel Board will consider on Monday whether Richie Farmer broke the state merit law at the Department of Agriculture when he was its commissioner.
It’s the first time the board will take action on the scathing audit by State Auditor Adam Edelen, but the Personnel Board has recently investigated hiring practices at the department.
In fact, hearing officers found that the agriculture department broke state hiring laws by placing two non-merit division directors – Danita Fentress-Laird and Kathryn Willis – into merit assistant director jobs during a lengthy investigation that concluded in January, the same month of the announcement that there would be a thorough audit.
The board recommended KDA receive training from the Personnel Cabinet on properly preparing and advertising openings in the department.
Fentress-Laird and Willis resigned and were reappointed to their previous jobs after the investigation was made public in June.
Willis is still director of the department’s information technology division, and Fentress-Laird, who was fined $1,500 by the Executive Branch Ethics Commission for her role in the matter, was fired from her post as personnel director when Commissioner James Comer took office in January.
The board will have more to consider after Monday. Auditors found the department reportedly pre-selected candidates for merit positions in at least eight instances, issued monetary awards without input from employees’ supervisors, eliminated a merit employee’s job responsibilities without documenting the action in his personnel file, and other personnel matters.
Personnel Board Executive Director Mark Sipek declined to comment on the audit until the board acts on Edelen’s referral.
Auditors also forwarded their findings to six state and federal agencies, including the Internal Revenue Service, Attorney General Jack Conway and the Executive Branch Ethics Commission, which is set to receive the audit at a meeting Monday.
Guthrie True, Farmer’s attorney, said it would be “fairly unlikely” that he or Farmer would have much of a role if the Personnel Board chooses to investigate incidents disclosed in the audit.
“I would think most of their investigation would be focused in conjunction with the current administration in the Department of Agriculture,” True told The State Journal Friday.
Sipek, speaking about the previous investigation, said he did not interview Farmer because witnesses, namely Fentress-Laird, sufficiently fleshed out the story.
“At the time, it didn’t seem like we needed his statement,” Sipek told The State Journal Thursday.
“We had Danita Fentress-Laird’s statement about essentially what actions she took. She took them to the commissioner and he approved them, and it didn’t seem at that point that it would’ve added a whole lot.”
The audit detailed the situation surrounding the assistant director hires as well as other instances of pre-selection in filling merit positions.
When filling merit positions, the department would jump through the normal bureaucratic hoops –creating an interview panel and coming up with predetermined questions –but when it came to making a hire, Farmer would sometimes appoint the second or third candidate recommended by the panel and, in one instance, someone completely off the radar, the report says.
Fentress-Laird, the former personnel director, told auditors that at times the interview panel would know which candidate Farmer wanted to appoint. In those cases, the panel would recommend the pre-selected candidate, according to the report.
In one instance, Farmer hired his ex-wife’s cousin as an agriculture inspector in 2007 because Farmer wanted “to help the candidate out,” the audit says. Three months later, Farmer appointed him to amusement safety inspector supervisor, a position created because Farmer again wanted to help him out, says the audit.
Auditors found that between June 10-26 the amusement safety inspector supervisor, based in London, drove his state-issued vehicle excessively while on the clock, claimed work hours while not producing inspection reports and possibly tampered with the GPS device installed on his state-issued vehicle.
The audit highlighted a trip in which the supervisor drove more than 10 hours with stops in Manchester, Lexington, Wilmore and Richmond for an inspection in Winchester that auditors said should’ve taken only three hours roundtrip.
Auditors also discussed Adjustment for Continuing Excellence monetary awards, which are meant to reward employees who have excelled at work, that were reportedly handed out at Farmer’s discretion.
Fentress-Laird told investigators that in late 2010, Farmer went through a complete staff listing, picked ACE recipients and told her to create justifications for the awards.
In another instance, Farmer reportedly told the executive director of the Office for Consumer and Environmental Protection to put the assistant director of the Regulation and Inspection Division “in a corner,” effectively eliminating the merit employee’s job responsibilities without reason.
“Employees were instructed not to assign any tasks or send telephone calls to or ask questions of the employee,” the audit reads. “This directive included taking away the employee’s access to the KDA computer databases.”
Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, in a written response to the audit, said he has fired about 20 employees from KDA, including all those cited in the audit that falsely submitted time sheets, misused state-issued vehicles and “otherwise exhibited poor work performance.”
He says KDA has been “in constant communication” with the Personnel Board and other state agencies since he took office.
“While I have yet to fill any of the merit positions that were vacant when I took office, if and when I do fill these positions, the appointments will be consistent with merit laws and regulations and will be chosen from the recommendations made to me by the interview panel,” Comer wrote in the April 25 letter.