The Personnel Board will formally investigate alleged personnel abuses at the Department of Agriculture under Richie Farmer – many of which were uncovered in the blistering audit released earlier this year.
The board voted unanimously Friday to open an investigation into personnel matters found in Auditor Adam Edelen’s report on the department during Farmer’s second and final term as commissioner, which ended in 2011.
The investigation will also look into an anonymous email saying that a department employee received special consideration for a merit position, the panel decided.
Edelen’s audit, performed at the request of Agriculture Commissioner James Comer when he took office in January, found a number of potential personnel abuses at Farmer’s direction, such as pre-selecting candidates for merit jobs, awarding monetary rewards without input from supervisors and having state employees perform personal errands while on state time.
Edelen forwarded his findings to the Personnel Board and other state and federal agencies.
Some who benefited from pre-selection include the roommate of Farmer’s girlfriend, who was hired as a store worker in 2011, and his ex-wife’s cousin, who was hired as an agriculture inspector and later amusement safety inspector supervisor in 2007, the audit says.
The Personnel Board is chiefly interested in investigating the merit hires and monetary awards, Executive Director Mark Sipek said.
“The main focus are the things listed in those two findings and the anonymous complaint and then just double-checking on the other findings,” Sipek told reporters Friday.
The state’s agriculture department has been on the Personnel Board’s radar for more than a year, and the agency found that a pair of non-merit division directors attempted to burrow into the merit system toward the end of Farmer’s.
One, Danita Fentress-Laird, was fined $1,500 by the Executive Branch Ethics Commission and fired when Comer took office while the other, Kathryn Willis, is still employed by KDA.
The board recommended the department receive training from the Personnel Cabinet on properly preparing and advertising openings in the department and Fentress-Laird and Willis attend training.
Investigators didn’t speak with Farmer during that inquiry, but Sipek said it’s “entirely possible” the former commissioner and University of Kentucky basketball star will be interviewed this time. The Personnel Board has subpoena powers, he said.
It’s unclear how long the investigation will take, and Sipek said he doesn’t anticipate finding personnel matters that weren’t detailed in the audit.
“We’re going to look at what’s here, and we’ll report back to the board what we find,” he said, noting the board is not pursuing any other investigations.
Guthrie True, Farmer’s attorney who has called the audit “political and self-serving,” has said he doesn’t anticipate investigators with the Personnel Board contacting Farmer.
“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 in May.