FRANKFORT — A team of auditors discovered what they believed to be “a toxic culture of entitlement” within the Kentucky Department of Agriculture during the administration of former Commissioner Richie Farmer, a University of Kentucky basketball icon who ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor last year.
Auditor of Public Accounts Adam Edelen said Monday that a review turned up evidence that suggests Farmer had misused state employees by directing them to perform personal errands for him, including taking him deer and turkey hunting.
Auditors said Farmer declined to be interviewed during the review. He did not immediately return a call Monday seeking comment.
Farmer, who played on the legendary 1992 University of Kentucky basketball team dubbed “The Unforgettables,” breezed through two elections for agriculture commissioner but lost the race for lieutenant governor when questions began to arise about his management of the Department of Agriculture.
Edelen said he will refer information his auditors uncovered to the Kentucky Attorney General, Executive Branch Ethics Commission, Internal Revenue Service, Kentucky Department of Revenue, Office of Inspector General of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the State Personnel Board.
“The law makes no distinction between icons and the rest of us, and neither do I,” Edelen said in a statement just before the start of a Monday press conference to publicly release his findings.
“The report paints a clear picture of an administration that had no qualms about treating taxpayer resources as its own. The former commissioner had state employees on state time take him hunting and shopping, mow his yard, build a basketball court in his backyard, and even chauffeur his dog. He showered himself with gifts and office equipment and rewarded friends with jobs. These are just some of the documented abuses that should outrage every Kentuckian.”
Edelen initiated the audit at the request of newly elected Agriculture Commissioner James Comer.
“This audit was a serious and necessary step toward cleaning the slate and restoring the taxpayers’ confidence in this department,” Comer said in a statement.
The auditors cited “an extravagant conference” hosted by Farmer that cost Kentucky taxpayers more than $96,000. They said Farmer directed his staff to order excessive numbers of gifts, including rifles, rifle cases, knives, cigar boxes, shopping mall gift cards and watches for the conference. The auditors said Farmer took most of the items home after the conference, including 13 rifles, seven of which he later returned to the state. Six of the rifles remain unaccounted for.
“The extravagance of this conference that had less than 200 attendees shows a stunning disregard for the difficulties faced by Kentuckians who work for a living,” Edelen said in the statement.
Seven auditors reviewed thousands of documents, including emails, invoices, reports, policies, timesheets, travel vouchers and personnel files from 2004 through 2011. They conducted interviews with more than 50 people, including employees, vendors, and Farmer’s ex-wife.
The reviewers reported that a Department of Agriculture worker was directed to reserve hotel rooms near the state fair in the names of two employees who she knew would not be staying overnight. Auditors allege that Farmer used the rooms for his family members at a cost of $4,257 to taxpayers.
Auditors were told that state employees worked at Farmer’s home on state time, once building a basketball court and later moving a gun safe from his garage to his basement. The team of auditors also said Farmer had one employee drive him hunting and that Farmer shot a deer from his state-issued vehicle and directed the employee to bag it for him.
Farmer directed his staff to purchase two small refrigerators with state funds. He previously returned one of the $179 refrigerators. His ex-wife told auditors that she used the second refrigerator at her workplace, but that she has since turned it over to the auditor’s office.
The auditors said Farmer also took four state laptops for his personal use. He returned three laptops and related equipment in January. One laptop and its accessories, plus another laptop that had been assigned to the former commissioner, remain unaccounted for.
Edelen said the review also noted instances of questionable spending.
In one instance, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service gave the Department of Agriculture ginseng confiscated during an illegal harvest. That ginseng was to be sold and the proceeds used to benefit the ginseng industry in the state. Auditors said they found that $43,000 of the $241,000 was used to purchase vehicles for animal enforcement officers who aren’t involved in the ginseng program.
The Department of Agriculture purchased two 60-inch televisions and wall brackets for a total cost of $4,192. One was mounted in a conference room and the other in the commissioner’s office. Employees said the Department of Agriculture paid $60 to expedite the shipping of the brackets so that the TVs would be in place for Farmer to watch the NCAA basketball tournament.
Auditors allege that one former employee, a friend of Farmer’s, was paid $70,457 for work hours and travel miles for which, apparently, no known work was produced. Another employee, who is a cousin of the former commissioner’s ex-wife, appears to have received pay and the use of a state vehicle when no department-related work was performed.
And auditors said no significant work could be confirmed for a non-merit employee who had a documented personal relationship with Farmer. Auditors said Farmer signed her timesheets after the former chief of staff refused to do so.