Ky. Department of Agriculture works to reclaim image after scathing audit


by Joe Arnold

Posted on August 17, 2012 at 11:31 PM

Updated Saturday, Aug 18 at 10:39 AM

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WHAS11) -- Wracked by a scathing audit of a previous administration, Kentucky's Agriculture Department is working to reclaim its reputation as it performs on the state's biggest farming stage, the Kentucky State Fair.

"I think we've done a lot of cleaning up," James Comer (R), Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner, said.  "We've become transparent in the department.  We're being efficient. We're making employees accountable."

An April audit described "a toxic culture of entitlement" in the Ag Department under former commissioner Richie Farmer.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation is now communicating with the Kentucky Attorney General's office on its investigation of the Farmer administration.  The state's Personnel Board and Executive Branch Ethics Commission are also reviewing the findings of the audit led by Adam Edelen (D) the state auditor and invited by Comer.

In Comer's first state fair as commissioner, the department is still under the shadow of the audit.

"I do think [Comer] has a tough job," Tamara Martin of Glasgow, Ky. said, "but I think he has impressed people on both political sides by the way he's come in and wanted to clean house and make sure that everything is on the ups and ups."

Comer's housecleaning continued earlier in August month when he dismissed two more of Farmer's political appointees, though one is able to stay in a lesser position.

"I like Richie," Comer said.  "We don't say anything negative about Richie."

Yet Comer acknowledged the need to make a positive impression at the fair and work to earn Kentuckians' trust.

"More importantly than anything to me is that people in the Ag community have respect in me as Ag commissioner, my work ethic," Comer said.

The fair is familiar territory for Comer.  Unlike Richie Farmer, Comer is a farmer - raising beef cattle, corn and soybeans on 2,000 acres in Monroe County.  As a youth, he showed beef cattle at the fair.
"All these kids that are showing now, I showed with their parents.  So, I guess I'm getting old," Comer said.

If the Ag Department is the muscle behind state fair livestock and crop exhibits, the Ag Commissioner is the heart.  Comer is presenting every agriculture award.

"Every award is important," he said.It is a symbolic but important change.

"We never saw Richie when he was in office," Bob Olt, a Green County dairy farmer, said.

"I think [Comer] gets out more," Olt continued.  "He's traveling the state going to beef meetings, dairy meetings, beekeeping.  He's looking at all aspects of it."

"[Comer] at least shows up," added Tyler Buckley, a Lawrenceburg dairy farmer.  "He knows what a farm is."

Comer says he knows Kentucky is watching after the audit alleged embarrassing details of Richie Farmer's use of state resources at past state fairs, including utilizing a Kentucky State Trooper to transport his dog from the fair in Louisville to his Frankfort home and allowing relatives to use taxpayer-paid hotel rooms set aside in the name of state employees.

"We're going to be transparent too with everything," Comer said.  "You'll see every expense. We're just about there online of where we can post every expense online and we want to be 100 percent transparent."

Comer says most agriculture department employees are staying in cheaper hotels compared to last year's state fair - with as many as four employees sharing a room.