By Ronnie Ellis
CNHI News Service
The state Executive Branch Ethics Commission issued charges of 42 violations of Kentucky’s ethics laws Monday against former Agriculture Commissioner Richie Farmer.
John Steffan, executive director of the commission, said it’s the largest number of violations issued by the commission in its history and that each charge carries a potential $5,000 civil fine for a potential total of $210,000.
“We have not seen the misuse of office of this level in the nine years I’ve been commissioner,” Steffan told reporters after the commission issued its report.
The commission’s investigation stems from an audit conducted by state Auditor Adam Edelen and released a year ago. That examination was conducted at the request of then newly elected Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, like Farmer a Republican, when he assumed office in January 2012.
The charges cover a long list of alleged abuses including: unethical influence in the creation of job positions; unethical influence in the hiring of other positions; misuse of state employees and employees’ time; misuse of state resources; using state employees to perform personal work; soliciting donations from regulated entities doing business with the Department of Agriculture to pay for a convention of secretaries of state; misuse of grant funds; and improper use of “Kentucky Proud” marketing funds and products.
Among the personal work performed by state employees for Farmer allegedly were yard work and chauffeuring his dog. The improper use of Kentucky Proud funds allegedly involved using $20,000 to sponsor a racing team owned by a member of Farmer’s family.
Farmer’s attorney, Guthrie True, said he hadn’t had time to review the charges but said from what he understands of them, they seem “to parrot the inferences in the auditor’s report and it’s always been our position that he engaged in no illegal behavior nor do we believe he engaged in any unethical conduct.”
Comer issued a statement saying the commission’s investigation allows the Agriculture Department to move forward and said it has “become a model of accountability and transparency.”
Farmer, a popular high school and University of Kentucky basketball icon, was first elected Agriculture Commissioner in 2003 and re-elected in 2007 before teaming up to run unsuccessfully for Lieutenant Governor in 2011 with unsuccessful Republican gubernatorial candidate David Williams.
The commission also charged five former department employees and one current employee, Bruce Harper.
It also issued three charges against Farmer’s sister, Rhonda Monroe, an employee of the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance, alleging she advised Farmer to make fraudulent expense claims against campaign funds.
Steffan said the charges are like an indictment and a hearing officer will hear them as well as any defense by Farmer or his attorneys. The hearing officer will then report his findings back to the commission which would then issue a final decision. Steffan said the parties could also negotiate a settlement before that happens, something that’s often the case in such charges.
But Steffan also said the commission had collaborated with ongoing investigations by other unidentified agencies, presumably law enforcement agencies which might also be investigating the allegations found in Edelen’s audit. At the time Edelen issued his report, he said it was forwarded to other law enforcement agencies.
Allison Gardner Martin, spokeswoman for Attorney General Jack Conway, said Conway’s office has received a copy of the commission’s orders but it is the policy of the office not to comment on any ongoing or potential investigations.
It is unlikely Farmer or his attorney would agree to a settlement which might include some acceptance of responsibility so long as those other investigations might be continuing.
True said he is disappointed in the charges by the commission and the number of charges. He said the allegations are “taken out of context and are generally blown out of proportion and we think the evidence will show that.” He wouldn’t speculate on a possible settlement except to say one might be possible if “some reasonable resolution” were available.
Harper was charged with soliciting donations for the secretaries of state conference from entities regulated by the Department of Agriculture and for intervening in two cases of fines against a farmer and a grain dealer.
Former employees named in the order were:
‰Chris Parsons, an inspector for the department and the state veterinarian: for charges of pay and travel for time he did not actual work;
‰George “Doug” Begley, inspector: for charges of conducting private business on state time and with a state vehicle;
‰William E. Mobley, special assistant: for charges of collecting pay and travel expenses for duties he didn’t perform;
‰Steven C. Mobley, a director: for charges that he filled out time sheets and travel vouchers for his brother, William E. Mobley, and for failure to report a gift of $500 value or more from a Kentucky Proud vendor; and
‰Stephanie l. Sandman, staff assistant: for charges of falsifying time sheets and collecting pay for time she didn’t work.
In addition to civil fines which could be assessed against those charged, they could be removed from their current state jobs or barred from future employment under the ethics law.
Ronnie Ellis writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at email@example.com. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.