Farmer's next test

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The Personnel Board, which routinely reviews misconduct by state employees and imposes penalties where it deems appropriate, is now going to consider whether Richie Farmer, the former commissioner of agriculture, was guilty of gaming the Merit System.

Much of the news about Farmer’s epic presumption has focused on his tastes for high living while serving as the elected leader of Kentucky’s agriculture agency – his lavish motor pool, his luxury hotel stays for events in Lexington and Louisville when he could have saved the state some cash by bunking at home in Frankfort, his commandeered generosity in handing out gifts to fellow commissioners of agriculture who attended a convention in Kentucky.

Farmer, embroiled in a bitter divorce case toward the end of his administration, also came under fire for hiring his girlfriend to a $60,000-a-year political position in the department – she was dismissed after James Comer took over the commissioner’s post this year.

While Kentucky politicians are notorious for luxuriating in the spoils of victory and handing out appointments to supporters, abuse of the Merit System hits a raw nerve among state workers, especially now that they’re having to subsist on stagnant pay because of the economic downturn. State Auditor Adam Edelen’s report about the former agriculture commissioner tapping merit employees for dog-sitting duties and helping him bag a deer from a state car parked on the roadside highlighted the indignities which the Merit System is supposed to keep merit employees from having to endure.

Farmer isn’t the first politician suspected of circumventing the letter and the intent of the merit law. The minions of former Gov. Ernie Fletcher also took keen interest in who got hired to merit positions and whether they were living up to standards established by that Republican administration. Then-Attorney General Greg Stumbo, a Democrat, launched an investigation that many believed, perhaps not without justification, was rooted in politics. Fletcher got indicted for a misdemeanor, a charge ultimately dismissed in a court settlement, but his political hopes were dashed nonetheless. Democrat Steve Beshear defeated Fletcher in the next gubernatorial election.

The Personnel Board could hardly inflict more political damage on Farmer than he’s already suffered. The former Kentucky basketball idol, cast as a golden boy to run for lieutenant governor on David Williams’ ticket, turned out instead to be a huge liability for the Republican Senate president’s campaign after the scandal about Farmer’s excesses as agriculture commissioner began to make headlines. If he has any surviving political aspirations, he may have to start over and pursue them back home in Clay County.

The Personnel Board investigation is expected to focus on merit hires under Farmer, monetary awards allegedly handed out to favored workers and an anonymous complaint that a particular employee got special consideration. No election hangs in the balance, but an important principle is at stake. If Merit System protections are to be taken seriously, politicians who try to get around them have to be held accountable.

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