Farmer's "toxic' title will stick


What passes for state government’s regulatory apparatus will get first crack at deciding if Richie Farmer abused his authority when he ran the Department of Agriculture. The Personnel Board and the Executive Branch Ethics Commission are scheduled to take up the Farmer matter at their meetings Monday, and they will have plenty to chew on. 
They can start with the 151-page report from State Auditor Adam Edelen. The audit is known for its harsh assessment of Farmer and the way he ran the Department of Agriculture – creating a “toxic culture of entitlement and self-dealing at Kentucky taxpayers’ expense,” in the words of a press release that accompanied the report late last month.
The allegations of misuse of public office in the audit piled up to such an extent it will be a task just to figure out who gets what – a grand jury, the state and federal revenue watchdogs, or simply the functionaries of ethics and personnel, which could mean fines and reprimands.
The focus of the regulators will be the 2008 convention of the Southern Association of State Departments of Agriculture, which has 17 member states. Farmer, as chairman, hosted it in Lexington. While Farmer contends that no state money was spent on the convention, which cost a little over $200,000, that may not have been the case.
The member commissioners at such conventions expect gifts from the host, and Kentucky was no exception. Farmer, with the coffers fueled by private donations, had scope-mounted rifles, pricey cigars, liquor, knives and gift cards. But now it’s a question of where all of the leftover gifts went – to Farmer or employees in his department. Not everyone wanted a rifle. Did they all smoke?
The audit said Farmer had state employees on state time take him hunting and shopping, construct a basketball court in his backyard, mow his lawn and even drive his dog back and forth between his home here and a Louisville hotel during the Kentucky State Fair.
Even before this mess came to light, Farmer had to deal with reports that he had hired his girlfriend as a special assistant for $5,000 a month, and there’ve been questions about what she did, if anything, at taxpayers’ expense. Then there were thousands more that he spent on hotel rooms not all that far from his home in Frankfort for a high school basketball tournament in Lexington. State officials have gotten in trouble with the law before over these kinds of things, particularly for someone on the public payroll who wasn’t paid for their services.
Farmer and his attorney have denied any wrongdoing and said it would be tough to make a case for felony wrongdoing. Time will tell. There are plenty who are browsing through the audit, and there’s political advantage to the Democrats to stringing something embarrassing, if not worse, to the out-of-power Republicans.
Everyone knows that Farmer is a basketball icon in Kentucky. But his sense of public trust is a joke. The Personnel Board and the Executive Branch Ethics Commission can take the “toxic” cue from the auditor’s report and formally say so.

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