Richie Farmer may have earned superstar status as a self-serving politician with repeated and voracious feedings at the public trough in his stint as commissioner of agriculture, but he’s far from alone when it comes to outrageous conduct by Kentucky government officials.
While dutifully declining this week to confirm or deny Farmer is under investigation, the Executive Branch Ethics Commission did announce actions it has taken against several others in government positions around the state. The most sensational case involved former Tourism Commissioner Mike Cooper, who resigned his $111,353 post three months ago after a series of reports by the Lexington Herald-Leader told the story of how he was wined and dined by a public relations firm he supported hiring to promote Kentucky tourism in Great Britain.
The paper said Gosh P.R. picked up the tab for Cooper’s entertainment and other expenses incurred on a trip to London, England, which the ethics commission said he initially told superiors he was taking for personal reasons. It isn’t kosher for government officials to accept gifts from contractors with whom the state does business, and Cooper was ordered to repay the money.
Those who defend such romps as a routine cost of operating in the business world should realize that in this instance, Kentucky not only had a commissioner collecting freebies but got crummy promotion advice as part of the bargain. Remember the Herald-Leader’s description of “Roadside Bingo,” the game that Gosh P.R. suggested bored Britons play to divert themselves during tedious hours of travel on the commonwealth’s back roads? Basically, you keep a log of road-killed animals, which the company said are a “fact of life” in this part of the world. Not the sort of tourist destination we’d find especially inviting. The state canceled its $179,900-a-year contract with Gosh.
If the former tourism commissioner is found guilty of the charges the ethics commission leveled against him, he could be reprimanded and fined up to $5,000.
Besides acting against Cooper, the commission charged a former strip-mine inspector with falsifying time and travel records, settled on a $400 fine for a former Transportation Cabinet director who finagled access to a celebrity at the Kentucky Speedway and ordered three property valuation administrators to pay $4,000 fines for hiring kinfolk.
Earlier this year, the ethics panel accused a conservation officer in the Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources of using his position to advance his own commercial fishing business.
Whether it’s the agriculture commissioner treating himself to luxury hotel suites during the high school basketball tournament, the tourism commissioner living it up in London or some obscure public employee landing a job by knowing people in high places, this sort of conduct only reinforces the sneaking suspicion that there’s something rotten in Frankfort. It denigrates a host of public servants who get up every morning and go to work with no dream of asking the public for anything more than decent pay for an honest day’s work.
Gov. Steve Beshear made high ethical standards for public officials a commitment in his gubernatorial campaign 4½ years ago. Going into his second term, it’s apparent there’s still lots of room for improvement.