By Ronnie Ellis
CNHI News Service
Telling him he betrayed the public trust and there “should be serious consequences for a serious crime,” U.S. District Judge Gregory Van Tatenhove sentenced former Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner Richie Farmer to 27 months in prison Tuesday.
Farmer, 44, pleaded guilty to two counts of misappropriating public funds by hiring family and friends who did little or no work and for converting public funds to his personal use after a plea agreement was worked out by his attorney Guthrie True and federal prosecutors.
That agreement called for a sentence of between 21 and 27 months and restitution by Farmer of $120,500 in exchange for dismissal of two similar counts in the indictment. Farmer potentially could have faced 10 years on each of the four charges.
True asked Van Tatenhove to choose the lower end of the sentencing range, saying Farmer suffered such a long fall that it “is in some ways punishment enough.”
“I guess the higher you climb in life the risk is the farther you fall when you make a mistake,” he said.
He said given Farmer’s notoriety and subsequent disgrace, 21 months represented both sufficient punishment for Farmer and a strong message to other public officials.
But Assistant U.S. Attorney Ken Taylor said the plea agreement was fair and he, too, noted that Farmer suffered a very public fall “from a very high mountain” and suffered a great loss of reputation.
“There is also a real benefit to society at large to hear the defendant say ‘I’m guilty, I did it and I’m not going to appeal,’” Taylor said. “It satisfies the public that this prosecution was just.”
Additionally, Taylor said, “A very long trial would’ve been very costly to both sides.”
True also asked the judge to consider Farmer’s three sons, none of whom were present for the sentencing.
“Although it’s Richie’s fault,” True said, his sons will suffer. “They are the collateral damage.”
He said every mistake made by one of the three during Farmer’s time in prison will be “Richie’s fault for not being there,” but the judge could reduce the time he’s not there by six months by choosing to sentence Farmer to 21 months rather than 27.
Farmer — a high school basketball legend who went on to play for the University of Kentucky and was a member of the UK team dubbed “the Unforgettables” — also addressed the court, with his parents, brother and sister looking on. His voice momentarily breaking, Farmer said he was sorry for the “mistakes and poor judgments” he made while commissioner of agriculture and apologized to the people of Kentucky “who have been so good to me.”
He said he has suffered through the ordeal of the investigation and media reports, “but most of all, I’ve had to watch what my family’s been through, and most of all my kids. I can never make it up to them but I want to say I’m sorry.”
Van Tatenhove spoke at length about the difficulty of his decision, saying the sentence was more about public trust and holding people accountable than about Farmer himself.
“Betraying the public trust is really serious, and there must be serious consequences for a serious crime to deter others,” Van Tatenhove told Farmer.
But the judge also told Farmer that his athletic accomplishments as a member of a beloved UK basketball team and the hanging of Farmer’s UK jersey in Rupp Arena should not be tarnished because of his subsequent mistakes as agriculture commissioner.
“Yet you owe a debt to society and you need to pay that debt,” Van Tatenhove said. “Once you’ve paid that debt, then you are debt free and you can hold your head high.”
He said he realizes others may “hold this over your head for the rest of your life but that’s not right.”
Van Tatenhove then sentenced Farmer to 27 months in federal prison with a year of supervised release. Farmer must also pay restitution of $120,500, the figure contained in the plea agreement.
Van Tatenhove allowed Farmer to self-report to prison and set the report date as March 18. He said he will recommend to federal prison officials that Farmer be allowed to serve his sentence at the facility in his hometown of Manchester.
Afterward, Farmer spoke briefly with reporters.
“Obviously, I’m disappointed,” he said. “But I certainly want to say to the people of the state how sorry that I am and how much they’ve meant to me and to thank them for all their understanding. You know, you make bad decisions and poor judgments and you own up to those mistakes and move on and that’s what I hope the people of the state are willing to do.”
Farmer also faces sentencing Friday in Franklin Circuit Court on a state charge that he caused his campaign funds to be expended for an improper purpose, stemming from allegations he submitted false expense reports to his campaign fund.
Ronnie Ellis writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.