(WHAS11) Saying an audit is necessary to restore morale and ensure the integrity of Kentucky's Agriculture Department, Commissioner James Comer (R) on Wednesday called for a special examination of the department's operation under his predecessor, Richie Farmer (R).
"The purpose of this audit is to address certain issues that employees have brought to our attention and to determine whether there are matters deserving of further inquiry," Comer said at a morning news conference.
Neither Comer or Auditor Adam Edelen would specify those issues.
"I don't want to compromise the integrity of the examination," Comer said.
"Ladies and gentlemen, there is clearly a cloud of suspicion that hangs over this office," Edelen said. "It is my job as state auditor to either dispel that cloud of suspicion or to hold the people who created it accountable."
During his 2011 campaign for lieutenant governor, Farmer defended the purchase of 19 new SUV's during state cutbacks, spending $10,000 for him and three others to attend a conference at a Caribbean resort, and using state funds for both a Lexington hotel suite during a basketball tournament and for a mini-refrigerator he used in his home.
"There seems to be a story about me everyday," Farmer said last April, "but I think it's aggravating that the way that it gets out there is not true."
"There were stories about different questionable purchases the department had made over the past few years," Comer explained, "maybe questions about the work ethic of an employee or two."
WHAS11 was not able to reach Farmer for comment.
Edelen said Farmer would be among those interviewed by auditors.
"Commissioner Farmer ought to welcome this audit," Edelen said. "If he did nothing wrong, he has nothing to worry about because I'm not interested in pursuing anything but the facts."
Yet, Edelen made clear that the special examination was not a fishing expedition.
"The conversations we've had about the size and scope of this audit justify the investigation, justifies our office bringing a team of folks here to ferret out any inefficiencies, any waste, any possible public corruption and to institute and recommend any policies for Commissioner Comer's administration," Edelen said.
In his first week on the job, Comer has already dismissed 15 non-merit employees, including Farmer's girlfriend who Farmer hired as a special assistant in his last months on the job.
Comer said a succession of media accounts about the Farmer administration has demoralized the Agriculture Department.
"We are going to leave no stone unturned so that my employees have a strong, healthy working environment," Comer said.
During last year's campaign season, Republicans complained that ethics complaints against Richie Farmer were politically motivated. Comer, however, is a fellow Republican.
"I don't care about what's politically correct," Comer said. "I want to do the right thing."
Though Farmer was not notified about the audit, other party officials and the Congressional delegation was apprised, Comer said.
"It's a difficult decision and I think he made the right decision," said Kentucky Republican Party Chairman Steve Robertson.
Conversely, Robertson said it was an easy decision for Democrat Adam Edelen.
"It's easy for him to look into an office led by a Republican," Robertson said, "I would call on him to do the difficult thing and crawl into the rest of the administration for waste fraud and abuse there."
Robertson suggested that Edelen's next audit should be in the Department of Travel. Commissioner Michael Cooper was recently suspended after questionable expenditures.
"Adam Edelen needs to show that he is the auditor of all of Kentucky and not just the Democratic Party of Kentucky," Robertson said.
Democratic Party officials had no comment about the audit.
Edelen and Comer said they discussed the possibility of an audit during their respective campaigns.
"I felt like during the campaign we needed to do an audit," Comer said. "I am 100 percent confident now."
The Agriculture Department has budgeted $15,000 for the audit. Edelen said the Auditor's office would absorb any cost above that.
During the audit, Edelen has requested the Agriculture Department to suspend payment on comp time balances and personnel reimbursements.
"We have some folks on our radar screen that we're going to be looking into but it's a wide ranging investigation," Edelen said.
"We have some great employees," Comer said. "The morale is low. This is the right first step to call in Auditor Edelen and let's make sure everything is on the 'up and up' here and we'll proceed forward and do a great job."