By RONNIE ELLIS
CNHI News Service
LEXINGTON — Richie Farmer’s attorney entered a plea of not guilty on his behalf Thursday before a federal magistrate here on charges of misappropriating more than $450,000 in public funds during his tenure as Commissioner of the Kentucky Department of Agriculture.
Federal Magistrate Robert E. Wier set a trial date for July 2, 2013, but Farmer’s attorney, Guthrie True, said afterward he’d seek a continuance in order to give him more time to prepare Farmer’s defense.
Wier said Farmer represented minimal flight risk and allowed the former two-term Republican Commissioner of Agriculture to remain free on his own recognizance.
But Wier denied a request to allow Farmer, who is unemployed, and “his significant other,” later identified by True as Farmer’s girlfriend Stephanie Sandmann, to travel to Cancun, Mexico in May on a previously planned and paid for trip.
Farmer, 43, is charged with four counts of misappropriating public funds and of solicitation of property in exchange for influencing agriculture department policies and actions.
Each count carries a potential prison sentence of up to 10 years and fines of up to $200,000. Weir said under federal statutes the U.S. Department of Justice could seek to have the fines doubled.
A federal grand jury last Friday returned a sealed indictment last Friday which was unsealed Monday. It alleges Farmer took for his personal use excess guns, knives, watches and gift cards purchased as gifts for participants at a 2008 Southern Association of State Departments of Agriculture in Lexington and directed KDA staff to reserve hotel rooms in their names at the state fair which were used instead by Farmer’s extended family.
The indictment also alleges Farmer created non-merit jobs for “close associates” who performed little or unnecessary work and that Farmer used KDA personnel to perform personal chores and errands and indicates federal authorities will seek $450,000 in restitution, allegedly the amount he misappropriated.
True contends the charges set a “dangerous precedent” for the U.S. Department of Justice to question political and policy decisions by other government agencies and has said Farmer has not done anything wrong.
“We’re glad to finally get the initial appearance out of the way,” True told reporters as he and Farmer left the courthouse. “We’re going to be ready when trial time comes and the rest of the story will come out then.”
Farmer was at one time perhaps the most popular politician in the state after his basketball career that included a state championship at Clay County High School and playing on a beloved UK team known as “The Unforgettables.” His UK jersey hangs from the rafters of Rupp Arena.
He easily won election twice as Agriculture Commissioner and some thought he might someday be a candidate for governor. But in 2011, Farmer agreed to run as a candidate for lieutenant governor on the Republican slate of state Senate President David Williams, who lost badly to incumbent Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear.
Early in the campaign, Farmer’s wife sued him for divorce and a number of newspaper accounts questioned spending and hiring decisions during his tenure as Agriculture Commissioner.
After Republican James Comer won election as Farmer’s successor at KDA, he asked newly elected Democratic Auditor Adam Edelen to conduct a review of Farmer’s administration. Edelen issued a report describing a “toxic culture of entitlement” at the KDA and shared the report with law enforcement agencies.
In March of this year, the Executive Branch Ethics Commission issued 42 charges of ethics violation against Farmer.
Farmer, sporting a goatee along with his trademark mustache, entered the federal courthouse with True just before the scheduled 4 p.m. arraignment, declining to speak with reporters. Shortly afterward, his parents entered separately and sat in the audience throughout the proceedings.
Wier explained Farmer his rights and listed restrictions which Farmer must obey while awaiting trial. Primary among those were surrender of his passport, regular reports to the Probation Office, remaining within the state, and “actively searching for a job.”
True told Wier his client would make a good faith effort to find employment but said it is almost impossible for Farmer to find gainful employment during the publicity surrounding his trial.
A standard restriction on such defendants is that they may not speak to potential witnesses. But Wier said Farmer may visit Sandmann, who might be called to testify, and to speak with his ex-wife Rebecca Farmer about their three sons. The prosecution apparently intends to call Rebecca Farmer as a witness.
When True also asked for the exception for the trip to Cancun, Wier said he is uncomfortable making such an exception and True later told reporters he knew it was unlikely the request would be granted.
U.S. Attorney Ken Taylor told Wier he expects the trial to last about three weeks.
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.