FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — A once-beloved University of Kentucky basketball star who glided into politics on his athletic achievements pleaded guilty Friday in a government corruption case that could send him to prison for two years.
Richie Farmer, the sweet-shooting guard for a UK team dubbed "The Unforgettables" for their gutsy play, stood stoically facing U.S. District Judge Gregory Van Tatenhove to finalize a plea agreement his attorney had reached with prosecutors last week.
Under the deal, Farmer, 44, agreed to plead guilty to two counts of misappropriating government resources while overseeing the Kentucky Department of Agriculture.
"I let down the people of Kentucky," Farmer told Van Tatenhove. "I let down my family and friends, and for this I am truly sorry."
Farmer's political career came crashing down during a bid for lieutenant governor two years ago when complaints began to surface about his management of the state agency he oversaw in the elected position of agriculture commissioner.
Farmer, whose jersey hangs as a monument in the rafters of Rupp Arena, had been scheduled to stand trial next month on a five-count federal indictment. The plea deal brokered by Farmer's attorney, Guthrie True of Frankfort, also resolved administrative charges pending before the Executive Branch Ethics Commission as well as one count of violating state campaign-finance laws brought by the state attorney general.
The original indictment included four counts of misappropriating government property and money and one count of soliciting property in exchange for a government grant. Van Tatenhove ruled that Farmer would remain free pending sentencing, which is set for Jan. 14. His travel will remain restricted to within Kentucky.
He could have faced up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine on each of the five original federal counts. Prosecutors had said they would also seek $450,000 — the amount that was allegedly misappropriated — from Farmer, a Republican who was easily elected twice in a state that is predominantly Democrat by voter registration.
The plea bargain whittled down not just the potential prison time but also the financial penalties. Under the agreement, Farmer would face a sentence of up to two years and three months in prison, and pay restitution of $120,500 to the state. He won't have to pay any federal fines.
Prosecutors alleged that Farmer had used government employees to work on his Frankfort home, even to build a basketball court in his backyard, and that he hired friends, including his girlfriend, as special assistants who did little or no work for the agriculture department. U.S. Attorney Kerry Harvey accused Farmer of directing agency employees to drive him on personal errands, babysit his children, mow his lawn and transport his dog.
The federal indictment said Farmer used an account that mingled private and government funds to buy gifts, including customized Remington rifles and embossed Case knives, for visiting state agriculture commissioners during a 2008 national conference. The indictment said Farmer kept many of the gifts for himself.
As part of the overall plea agreement, Farmer made a second court appearance on Friday to plead guilty to violating Kentucky campaign finance laws. Franklin County Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd tentatively set sentencing for Jan. 17.
The plea agreement calls for one year in jail to be served concurrently with the federal sentence, meaning the state charge won't extend his time behind bars.
Under the plea agreement, Farmer's sister, Rhonda Monroe, also pleaded guilty to a campaign finance violation. Monroe, the former assistant executive director of the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance, was accused of helping Farmer transfer money from a campaign account for personal use. Monroe will serve two years of probation.
Also Friday, the Executive Branch Ethics Commission released a settlement agreement that requires Farmer to pay a $63,000 fine, the largest in state history. That settlement was tied to the overall plea agreement with federal and state prosecutors. In it, he acknowledged 35 violations of the state's ethics code.
Although he played more than 20 years ago, the homegrown athlete from impoverished Clay County remains a household name in Kentucky. His jersey was retired alongside the likes of Dan Issel, Pat Riley, Kenny Walker and Sam Bowie.
"No one involved in this prosecution takes any joy in this," Harvey told reporters after the federal hearing. "Mr. Farmer, as we all know, started his political career really with unlimited promise, and with the best wishes of all Kentuckians. It's unfortunate that we have come to this day, but sadly the evidence established that too often Mr. Farmer looked upon his office and the Kentucky Department of Agriculture more as a personal playhouse than as an opportunity to render public service."