Ky. should review whistleblower protections to guard against future Richie Farmer sagas, auditor says

03/21/2013 05:37 PM

Kentucky has two holes in its whistleblower protections that state Auditor Adam Edelen said his office “take the lead in taking a look at” changing, especially in light of the investigation into former Ag Commissioner Richie Farmer.

The Executive Branch Ethics Commission this week charged Farmer with 42 counts of misuse of state resources and personnel violations carrying a penalty of $5,000 each. In the course of announcing the charges, one of the commission members said state employees also must know that “just following orders” can’t be a defense.

Edelen’s office unearthed much of the wrongdoing in a scathing audit last year. On Thursday he said Kentucky laws could perhaps be reviewed to give state workers more protections to speak up.

“The Farmer example is proof positive that we’ve got to do more I think to empower rank-and-file employees to resist efforts that aren’t in the best interest of the taxpayers,” Edelen told Pure Politics (6:20 of the interview.)

For example, Kentucky’s whistleblower statutes don’t provide protections for employees to refuse to carry out illegal or improper orders. And while the law — KRS 61.102 — prohibits reprisal against employees who speak up against wrongdoing, it doesn’t define what types of actions would be considered reprisal.

Edelen said ideally state workers should be compelled to speak up against improper actions, but one commenter to Pure Politics wrote that state employees don’t have the confidence to do so because the ethics commission rarely goes after sitting state officials.

“I am deeply concerned that someone could have that view … I do think it’s the obligation of state employees who are witness to abuses of taxpayer trust or resources — I do think it’s their obligation to blow the whistle,” Edelen said of that response.

Overall, Edelen said the culture in a state department starts at the top.

“It was a culture not only of curroption and abuse of office, but it was a culture in which those who wanted to do the right thing weren’t empowered to do the right thing,” Edelen said (1:20). “… I think it was a character problem with the people we elect to office.”

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