Personnel board grants request for investigation into two merit hires in Dept. of Ag

06/10/2011 10:02 AM

The Kentucky Personnel Board agreed Friday morning to go forward with an investigation into the hiring of two merit workers in the Kentucky Department of Agriculture.

Personnel Board Vice Chairman Larry Gillis sought the investigation after Department officials hired Danita Fentress-Laird and Kathryn Harp Willis into protected merit positions after serving in appointed non-merit positions.

Board members said at the meeting they were surprised at the sloppy record keeping during the hiring process and the fact that department would create $80,000-a-year positions in tough budget times.

Nicole Liberto, the legal counsel for the Department of Agriculture, said no notes were taken by the employee in charge of the hiring process, Alisa Edwards, during the interviews or after the hiring process, something board members said was odd.

And board members were also surprised that Edwards, the sole interviewer for the two positions, had Fentress-Laird as her supervisor during the process, despite Fentress-Laird being a candidate for one of the positions.

The Department of Agriculture also said there was no electronic or written communication about the two assistant director positions outside of Gillis’ e-mails. But during his testimony, Gillis said he found out post-request that at least one other person had inquired about the positions through e-mail, in direct conflict with the Agriculture Department’s statements.

Board members also didn’t buy Liberto’s argument that the Personnel Cabinet had effectively vetted the hiring process during a January inquiry. But a representative of the Personnel Cabinet said the department took the Agriculture Department at it’s word that nothing improper was committed and that the hirings were valid. The Personnel Cabinet did not do their own investigation.

Those factors combined led to Personnel Board members deciding to do their own investigation.

The department is headed by Agriculture Commissioner Richie Farmer. Farmer is running for Lieutenant Governor with Republican Senate President David Williams, and is term limited, meaning he will leave his position at the end of this year.

But Gillis made a point at the Friday morning Personnel Board meeting of saying that he had no knowledge Farmer was involved in the hiring process. Gillis also said that it’s “unfortunate” that the investigation might be seen as political.

Gillis alleged the hires were done improperly, skirting merit system hiring laws. Gillis had also applied for the positions before seeking an investigation into the hires.

According to records obtained through Kentucky’s Open Door website, Willis were making $57,750 per year and Fentress-Laird is making $65,490 as a Division Director, both in the Dept. of Agriculture.

- Kenny Colston

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