By Ronnie Ellis
CNHI News Service
Most of the details won’t become public until a federal judge rules on a revised guilty plea, but Monday the Executive Branch Ethics Committee approved the largest settlement in its history with former Republican Commissioner of Agriculture Richie Farmer.
Those details will be released, according to the commission’s executive director, John Steffen, if the federal court approves Farmer’s revised plea of guilty and a deal worked out among his attorney, federal and state prosecutors, and the ethics commission. A hearing on the revised plea is scheduled for Friday in federal court.
But Steffen said the settlement is the largest ever reached by the commission.
“Both in the number of counts and the amount of the penalty, it will be the largest we’ve seen at this agency — which is appropriate because it is by far the worst misconduct by a public servant that we’ve seen,” Steffen said.
The commission also approved a settlement with Farmer’s sister, Rhonda Monroe, who was charged with three ethics violations for assisting Farmer in misreporting expenses on campaign finance reports. Because that settlement was not tied to any other investigation by other agencies, the commission released its details.
Farmer, 44, was charged with using campaign contributions for personal use. Monroe at the time worked for the Registry of Election Finance, which monitors campaign finance.
Steffen said Monroe “admitted to all three violations and has agreed to pay a $6,000 penalty for her actions, and she’s already lost her job, of course, as well.”
Last Thursday, Farmer’s attorney, Guthrie True, announced that Farmer had reached a settlement involving all the charges against him by federal and state prosecutors as well as the ethics commission.
According to True’s press release, Farmer has agreed to pay a fine or fines of $120,500 and will plead guilty to two of five federal counts and to one state count.
True said Farmer is expected to be sentenced to between 21 and 27 months on the federal charges. Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway later said the state is asking that Farmer be sentenced to one year on the state charge but has agreed to allow Farmer to serve the one-year sentence concurrently with his federal time.
At the time, Conway also said Monroe will be sentenced to a one-year sentence which will be probated over two years — and thus won’t spend time in prison.
The Ethics Commission settlement — if the federal court approves Farmer’s revised plea and deal — resolves 42 counts of ethics violations against Farmer, the most ever lodged against a Kentucky public official.
This week is likely to bring to a close the celebrated public career of a basketball hero who was once considered a potential candidate for governor.
Farmer was an iconic high school basketball player at Clay County and a beloved University of Kentucky player who rode his athletic fame into election as Kentucky commissioner of agriculture and then a place on the 2011 Republican gubernatorial ticket with David Williams.
Williams and Farmer lost the 2011 election to Democratic Gov. Steve Besehar and Lt. Gov. Jerry Abramson. A few months after the campaign, his successor as agriculture commissioner, Republican James Comer, asked for an audit of the department during Farmer’s administration.
Democratic Auditor Adam Edelen’s scathing report indicated Farmer hired friends and girlfriends who performed little real work; used department funds and staff for personal use; and the improper use of grant funds.
Farmer was subsequently indicted by federal prosecutors on four counts of misappropriating funds and one of soliciting property in exchange for government grants. Each count carried a possible sentence of 10 years and a $250,000 fine and prosecutors also sought $450,000 in restitution. A federal trial date of Oct. 22 had been set for Farmer.
Steffen said Monday his staff of one part-time investigator and one attorney had been investigating Farmer’s administration of the Agriculture Department since the fall of 2011 and later assisted the Conway’s and the FBI’s investigations.
Farmer played in three high school state championship games, winning one and scoring 51 points in another. He went on to become a member of a beloved University of Kentucky team – dubbed the “Unforgettables” for leading UK out of an NCAA imposed probation and losing to Duke in over time in the 1992 NCAA East Regional finals, considered by many to be the greatest college game ever played.
Shortly after that game, Farmer’s jersey – along with three teammates’ – was hung from the rafters of Rupp Arena.
Steffen said Monday what Farmer did as an elected official doesn’t take away from his earlier athletic accomplishments but should nonetheless serve as a reminder to others.
“I just see what he did as a public servant,” Steffen said. “I know what he did was wrong, and it’s something we need to try to eliminate in state government.”
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.