James Comer to name top four directors and general counsel in Ag Department

01/02/2012 12:11 PM

New Department of Agriculture Commissioner James Comer told Pure Politics after his swearing in that he will name his top four executive directors later Monday.

Comer also said he has had trouble getting budget information from outgoing Agriculture Commissioner Richie Farmer’s office. Comer said division directors weren’t privy to their own budgets — something that will change immediately. (Watch the video clip at the bottom of the post to find out why Comer has had problems getting budget data and what other changes he plans to make).

As for Comer’s top deputies in the department:

  • Comer will keep Robert C. Stout as the state veterinarian, whose office oversees livestock dealer licenses and animal health records.

Stout has served as state veterinarian since February 2004. He is an Indiana native but has lived in Versailles since 1962.

  • Mary Ann Baron, the former Green County judge executive, will serve as executive director of consumer and environmental protection.

She formerly worked in the administrations of former Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, first as the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Kentucky director of the agency’s rural home loan lending agency, then as the administrator of the Rural Development Administration. She later served as former deputy assistant secretary of the Economic Development Administration at the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Baron served three terms as Green County judge-executive through 2010.

  • Comer also said he will promote Kristen Branscum to the executive director of marketing. Branscum has worked in Richie Farmer’s department as director of value added plant production, which oversees the marketing of organically-grown foods as well as wines and the promotion of farmers markets.

Branscum first joined state government in 2004 when former Commerce Secretary Jim Host hired her as tourism development director during Gov. Ernie Fletcher’s administration.

  • And Grayson Smith will serve as Comer’s executive director of administration, strategic planning and ourtreach.

Smith, a former University of Kentucky football player, had served on the Republican Party of Kentucky’s executive committee. He owns a consulting firm and volunteered on behalf of Comer’s campaign, just as he did for former Secretary of State Trey Grayson’s 2010 run for U.S. Senate. Previously, Grayson worked in Fletcher’s administration in the office for local development as an outreach coordinator in Eastern Kentucky. Smith left that agency after it was the subject of scrutiny over improper state hirings in 2005.

In addition, Holly Harris VonLuehrte will join the Ag Department as Comer’s general counsel. VonLuerhte has worked as general counsel and previously as finance chairwoman for the Republican Party of Kentucky. She said her last day at the party is Monday and will begin at the Ag Department on Tuesday.

Comer said on Tuesday he will deliver letters to 16 non-merit appointees at the Ag Department thanking them for their service. That includes ending the tenure of Stephanie Sandmann, Farmer’s girlfriend whom Farmer hired in October at a monthly salary of $5,000 to be an executive assistant.

Comer said he won’t immediately fill those appointed positions but will evaluate how to best organize the department and make hires over the next six weeks.

- Reporting by Ryan Alessi and video by Nick Storm

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