Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

January 15, 2014

Off to prison

There are lessons for all of us in Richie Farmer's misde3ds

The Independent

ASHLAND — Former University of Kentucky basketball star Richie Farmer will spend more than two years in federal prison for crimes he committed during eight years as the elected state commissioner of agriculture. He also has been ordered to pay $120,500 restitution.

Farmer pleaded guilty in September to two counts of misappropriating government resources while overseeing the state agriculture department. Prosecutors moved to dismiss two charges against Farmer in exchange for his guilty plea.

Farmer, who was a household name to Kentucky high school basketball fans before playing a game for the UK Wildcats, has admitted to his crimes and apologized to those who supported him.  

“If you make bad decisions and poor judgments, you own up to them,” Farmer said in court Tuesday as U.S. District Judge Gregory Van Tatenhove sentenced him to 27 months in prison. Because there is no probation in the federal prison system, the former candidate for lieutenant governor could be imprisoned for the full 27 months.

However, as Farmer heads to prison, one must wonder what part the fame and adulation he gained as a UK basketball star played in his downfall. Both Judge Tatenhove and Assistant U.S. Attorney Kenneth  Taylor, who prosecuted the case, talked about a sense of entitlement Farmer had gained because of the idolization he gained from UK’s rabid basketball fans.

The judge spoke of Farmer’s retired jersey hanging inside Rupp Arena in Lexington, but said his misdeeds ran wide and deep during eight years in office.

“It’s sad to read,” Van Tatenhove said. “There is a sense of entitlement. There’s greed ... kind of a culture of entitlement is not really understating it.”

Farmer abused the trust and goodwill he earned as a basketball star at UK, Taylor wrote in recommending the sentence.

“The defendant’s athletic success provided the platform from which he could obtain the very office he abused,” Taylor wrote. “Seen from that perspective, the goodwill was squandered and the public betrayed.”

Taylor outlined a wide-ranging series of alleged abuses by Farmer during his eight years in office, including hiring friends and expecting little or no work from them; using state employees for personal business, including to build a basketball court at his home in Manchester; and taking items such as laptops, personal refrigerators and filing cabinets home with him, as well as keeping some of them after leaving office in 2012.

“This course of conduct permeated Farmer’s entire administration,” Taylor wrote. “Unfortunately, those around him were too fearful of losing their jobs, income or position to report the abuses until he left office.”

Those of us in the media also played a role in this. The commissioner of agriculture receives little public attention. Most  don’t even know what the commissioner does and few even care. While he had a degree in agriculture from UK, Farmer had never lived on a farm and was not known as an advocate for agriculture issues. He was elected and re-elected simply because he was so well-known as a basketball player.

Because his offices received so little publ;ic attention, Farmer’s misdeeds as ag commissioner were mostly unknown until after he had left office. Indeed, when then-Senate President David Williams chose Farmer as his running mate in this 2011 campaign for governor, it was hoped the well-liked Farmer with a reputation for being a “nice guy” would offset Williams’ gruff, no-nonsense reputation as the Republican leader of the Senate. As it turned out, Farmer became something of a liability for Williams, but that had much more to do with a rather nasty divorce Farmer was going through than his duties as ag commissioner.

It was not until Farmer was succeeded by another Republican, James Comer, that the extent of his misdeeds as commissioner became pubic knowledge. It was a scathing audit of the ag department Comer requested that led to the criminal charges and put an end to the once-promising political career of Farmer.

There is a lesson for all of us: Judge a candidate by his or her ideas, his experience and his performance in office. Being a star basketball player for your favorite team is not a valid  reason to vote for someone seeking an office for which he has little or no qualifications.

Richie Farmer’s time in the public limelight has ended. It is time for him to pay for his misdeeds and then fade into obscurity. Meanwhile we should all commit ourselves to paying  more attention to those we elect to all political offices.