LEXINGTON, Ky (WHAS11) -- Indicted on five federal felony counts alleging abuse of his elected office, former Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner Richie Farmer will plead not guilty and expects a jury trial, his attorney said on Monday.
"We feel strongly that the issues raised by the indictment should not be the bailiwick of the US Department of Justice but rather should be in the province of the voters of Kentucky," said Guthrie True, Farmer's attorney. "The manner in which the elected commissioner of the Kentucky Department of Agriculture conducts his business is a political not a legal issue."
"Public corruption has always been a high priority of this office and the FBI," said Kerry Harvey, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Kentucky when asked why Farmer's performance in office was a matter for the courts. "It's certainly a matter that we take very seriously."
"It's a federal crime to misappropriate more than $5000 of public funds in a 12 month period if the governmental agency receives more than $10,000 in federal funds for that same period," Harvey explained.
Farmer is accused of abusing his authority throughout his tenure as agriculture commissioner, using Department funds to obtain rifles, clothes, hotel rooms, computer equipment and home appliances for himself, his friends and his family.
"The indictment alleges that there was an ongoing breach of the public trust," Harvey said.
The indictment marks the lowest point yet in the former University of Kentucky basketball standout's fall from grace. Farmer is one of the Wildcats' "Unforgettables" of the early 1990's and was 1988's "Mr. Basketball" selected as the top high school senior player in the commonwealth.
When Kentucky voters resoundingly re-elected Farmer to a second term as agriculture commissioner in 2007, he received more votes than any other statewide candidate.
In 2011, however, Farmer's popularity could not overcome a landslide defeat in his bid for lieutenant governor with Senate President David Williams atop the Republican ticket.
After questions surfaced during the campaign about Farmer's record in office, newly elected Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, a fellow Republican, requested an audit of the department in concert with newly elected Kentucky Auditor Adam Edelen, a Democrat.
True suggested that Farmer was targeted because he presented a potential campaign challenge to Comer, Edelen and others.
"If there are folks out there who think that Richie should not be in public life anymore should he have elected to make himself available for public service, they should have elected to stand in competition with him," True said, "not to try to eliminate him from politics in Kentucky through this type of maneuver."
Edelen bristled at the suggestion.
"This is about Commissioner Farmer being held accountable for his misdeeds in office," Edelen said. "This isn't typical business in Kentucky."
"To label everyone with that broad brush is unfair," Edelen added.
"I am pleased that the U.S. Attorney's office and the Federal Bureau of Investigation has taken the investigation that my office has conducted and acted on it in such a way that we're going to be able to move the public integrity ball forward in Kentucky," Edelen said.
Asked whether the case against Farmer would have surfaced without the auditor's investigation, the U.S. Attorney said the auditors office provided a "good jump start" for their case.
A 2008 WHAS11 investigation was the first to look into Farmer's spending, questioning expenditures for a southern states agriculture conference.
The indictment rewrites Farmer's legacy as one of misusing and misappropriating money and property belonging to the Ag Department and hiring friends as special assistants who did little official work.
"I think his regret is that all that has been accomplished for Kentucky farmers and Kentucky agriculture -- for instance in the huge growth in the Kentucky Proud program -- has been overshadowed by all of this," True said.
"I think the accomplishments of the department under his tenure, frankly, would have made Richie a very attractive candidate -- despite the governor's race -- for future political office and I think a lot of people knew that," True said.
The indictment seeks $450,000 to repay the allegedly abused funds. Farmer could face a maximum of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine for each count.
True disclosed that Farmer, who had worked for months as a car salesman, has been unemployed for several weeks, and a new automotive business venture was derailed by the indictment.
Farmers next move isn't on the court, it's in court. His arraignment is scheduled on April 30.