Comer calls in Edelen's auditors for a clean sweep of Ag Dept. in the wake of Richie Farmer

01/11/2012 05:08 PM

FRANKFORT — Little over a week after taking office, new Republican Agriculture Commissioner James Comer invited new Democratic Auditor Adam Edelen to look through the books, management and structure of the Ag Department as former commissioner Richie Farmer left it.

Farmer, who ran on the unsuccessful Republican gubernatorial ticket last year, was the subject of numerous media reports regarding spending on conference room TVs, two minifridges — one of which went missing — a new SUV for his own use and a conference trip to the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Comer wouldn’t say whether he had seen specific evidence of fraud, waste or wrongdoing. But Edelen said enough was reported about questionable spending that it justified a top-to-bottom audit.

“There is clearly a cloud of suspicion that hangs over this office,” he said.

It’s one of those instances in which good government and good politics intersect.

Comer, a Republican, and Edelen, a Democrat, confirmed that they discussed a potential audit while running for their respective offices last all.

Edelen assigned four auditors to the review. And Brian Lykins, who remains director of special audits just as he was for Auditor Crit Luallen, was present at the news conference. Lykins spearheaded the special audits into agencies such as the Kentucky Association of Counties, Kentucky League of Cities and Bluegrass Airport.

Edelen hasn’t set a deadline for the review to finish but it will likely take more than six weeks.

Comer has pledged to cover $15,000 of the cost, and if it goes beyond that, Edelen said his office will pick up the rest of the tab.

Comer repeatedly said he hopes the audit will raise morale among the 250 employees in the department, which markets Kentucky agriculture products, puts on the state fair and regulates grocery scanners and gas pumps.

Auditors will interview former agriculture employees, including Farmer, Edelen confirmed.

Comer said he hadn’t spoken to Farmer since a Kentucky Farm Bureau conference in December. Earlier this month he said he struggled to get basic budget information from Farmer and his deputies during the transition.

And Comer said many employees expressed their frustration during his initial meetings with them about the atmosphere and image of the department.

In the meantime, Comer will proceed slowly in hiring for top-level appointed positions. He hired four top deputies to run the major divisions, including keeping the state veterinarian and promoting an existing employee.

But he will go slow in replacing 15 appointees leftover from Farmer whom Comer let go last week — including Farmer’s girlfriend, Stephanie Sandmann. Farmer hired her in October for the remaining two months of his tenure at $5,000-a-month.

Edelen also said he has asked Comer to hold off on paying overtime and approving comp time.

Comer said he gave some Republican leaders, including members of the congressional delegation, a heads up about the audit.

Edelen said he informed legislative leaders, including Farmer’s former slate-mate, Senate President David Williams.

Williams told reporters Wednesday afternoon that he hadn’t spoken to Farmer and had no comment on the audit.

- Video produced by Don Weber


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