By RONNIE ELLIS
CNHI News Service
FRANKFORT — Former Republican Agriculture Commissioner Richie Farmer was indicted on four counts of misappropriating public funds and solicitation of property in exchange for influencing agriculture matters by a federal grand jury.
According to the indictment, Richard Dwight Farmer, 43, who was twice elected agriculture commissioner and ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor after a storied basketball career in high school and at the University of Kentucky, “repeatedly abused his authority for his own benefit,” and “wrongfully used public funds and (Kentucky Department of Agriculture) resources to obtain goods and services for him and his family.”
The indictment 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.
It also alleges he created non-merit jobs to which he appointed “close associates” who performed little or unnecessary work and used KDA staff to perform personal work such as lawn work, work on his personal home, babysitting his children and driving his dog.
Each count carries a maximum penalty of 10 years and fines of up to $250,000. The government is also seeking restitution of $450,000.
Farmer’s attorney, Guthrie True, said he was “disappointed but not surprised by today’s indictment.”
He said he has been aware of the plan to indict Farmer for “several weeks now,” adding that he believes the issues contained in the allegations are more political and policy-related than something which should be decided by the courts.
True said Famer “absolutely” will plead not guilty and will surrender voluntarily rather than being taken into custody. He said the proposed April 30 arraignment date set forth in the indictment may have to be re-scheduled because of another trial True is scheduled to begin the previous day in Bowling Green.
Farmer was at one time perhaps the most publicly popular politician in the state after his basketball career that included a state championship and playing on a beloved UK team known as “The Unforgettables.”
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 several 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. About a year ago, Edelen issued a report describing a “toxic culture of entitlement” at the KDA, and he said the report was turned over to law enforcement agencies.
In March of this year, the Executive Branch Ethics Commission issued 42 charges of ethics violation against Farmer as well.
True said he didn’t know if any other state agencies might also be preparing charges against Farmer. One of the ethics charges alleges Farmer used the help of his sister, Rhonda Monroe, an employee of the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance, to make fraudulent expense claims against campaign funds which would be a state violation.
Allison Martin, spokeswoman for Attorney General Jack Conway, issued a statement Monday afternoon in response to questions from reporters.
“Investigators from the Office of the Attorney General worked with federal authorities on this case, which resulted in today’s indictments. Beyond that, it would be inappropriate to comment further on a criminal investigation, “Martin said.
True said Monday that he does not anticipate any sort of negotiated deal with federal prosecutors, expecting the case to be decided by a jury.
He said Farmer, who last fall underwent hip replacement surgery, is doing well physically and took the news of the indictment in stride but said he’s unemployed.
“I suspect things are going to be tough for Richie to be employed until we get this case behind us,” True said.
True said the indictment represents “a dangerous precedent” for the U.S. Department of Justice to question political and policy priorities of other administrations or agencies of state government.
He said he may question some of the facts alleged in the case or whether federal statues allow the aggregation of financial amounts to meet the threshold of an offense and other allegations may be based on facts taken out of context.
“We still believe he’s not done anything wrong,” True said. “We don’t believe these issues should be in the criminal arena at all.”
At Monday’s press conference announcing the indictment, U.S. Attorney Kerry B. Harvey declined to say if others may be indicted.
The indictment refers to other individuals by initials but those initials match former employees of KDA who were named in the Executive Branch Ethics Commission charges.
Farmer’s girlfriend, Stephanie Sandmann, William E. Mobley and Mark Jackson were all named in the ethics charges for performing little or no work for the department. The indictment alleges misuse of funds through salaries to “W.E.M., M.J., and S.S.”
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.