The announcement that former two-term Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner Richie Farmer will accept a plea deal that will cost him years of freedom and thousands in restitution draws to a close one of the highest-profile scandals in the state involving a public official in recent memory.
Auditor Adam Edelen, who launched an investigation into the Department of Agriculture after Farmer left office and described Farmer’s administration as “a toxic culture of entitlement,” said no one takes pleasure in how far Farmer has fallen since his political career ended in 2011.
But Farmer’s looming conviction shows no one in public office, no matter how famous or popular, is above the law, Edelen said.
“I think this is one of the biggest public corruption cases we’ve seen in Kentucky, certainly in terms of one of our highest-ranking officials,” Edelen said in a phone interview.
“… I don’t think there are any winners here. I think what’s clear is that in this case, the taxpayer watchdog did his job and the federal authorities held Mr. Farmer accountable for the crimes
he committed while in office.”
Farmer, who gained fame as a member of the 1992 University of Kentucky basketball team dubbed “The Unforgettables,” will plead guilty to two counts of a five-count federal indictment, his attorney, Guthrie True of Frankfort, said in a press release. Those charges alleged he misused funds and property at the Department of Agriculture from 2008 to 2011 totaling $450,000 and solicited property from a Whitley County auto dealer in exchange for a department grant.
Farmer, who ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor on a ticket with former Senate President David Williams in 2011, will serve between 21 and 27 months and be forced to pay $120,500 in restitution and fines if the plea deal is accepted, True said. He has asked for a court date either next Thursday or Friday.
The guilty plea will settle a pending second federal indictment, True said. Farmer, 44, has also agreed to settle an upcoming circuit court case regarding misuse of campaign funds in 2008 and 42 ethics charges brought by the Executive Branch Ethics Commission, True said.
“Richie deeply regrets the pain which has been inflicted on his family, as well as any embarrassment he has caused the good people of Kentucky,” he said in the release, which declined further comment until the next court proceeding.
“In part, this is why he has decided to bring an end to what would have turned into a spectacle which would have run on for months, if not years.”
Edelen’s audit uncovered missing state equipment and gifts for visiting agriculture commissioners during a 2008 Southern Association of State Departments of Agriculture conference in Farmer’s possession; employees chauffeuring Farmer on various trips and errands and doing work at his home; pre-selecting candidates for merit positions, including his girlfriend; and overall mismanagement.
Attorney General Jack Conway said both Farmer and his sister, Rhonda Monroe, agreed to plead guilty to misusing campaign funds totaling $10,500. Farmer will be sentenced to a year concurrent with his federal prison time, according to the plea agreement.
A former assistant executive director of the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance who resigned in May, Monroe, 48, conspired with Farmer to submit false campaign finance records with the registry on May 30, 2008, and July 28, 2008, according to the plea agreement. She will be sentenced to two years probation and cannot seek a job with the state for five years.
Farmer and Monroe, who both signed plea agreements, will appear before Franklin Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd later this month for sentencing, Conway said.
“The actions of Mr. Farmer during his time as agriculture commissioner are disappointing to the people of Kentucky and to those of us who work every day to uphold the public trust vested in us by the citizens of the commonwealth of Kentucky,” Conway said during a press conference. He took no questions, citing prosecutorial ethics because the guilty pleas have not been filed.
Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, who requested the audit when he took office and likened the investigation to “raising the Titanic,” said his focus has always been on building a stronger Department
“This is a sad day, but I am grateful that it appears everyone involved can now move forward,” Comer said in a statement. “…I hope people have confidence that we are hard at work serving our farm community and all of Kentucky.”
Williams, now a circuit court judge in Cumberland, Monroe and Clinton counties, could not be reached by press time for comment.
John Steffen, executive director of the Executive Branch Ethics Commission, said the commission is prepared to approve a settlement agreement Monday with Farmer, but the document will not be released publicly until U.S. District Judge Gregory Van Tatenhove accepts Farmer’s guilty plea.
Steffen said some of the 42 ethics charges against Farmer will be consolidated, but he will admit to all the allegations. Farmer faced a maximum fine of $210,000, but Steffen declined to comment on how much that figure would be reduced in the settlement.
“This is a good settlement for us,” he said in a phone interview.
Negotiations are ongoing with attorney Jim Deckard of Lexington, who represents Monroe, Steffen said. She faces charges that she helped Farmer file false receipts with the campaign finance registry.