Personnel records raise more questions about 'burrowing' in Ky. Agriculture Dept.

06/16/2011 07:07 PM

The two Agriculture Department employees who switched from appointed jobs to protected merit positions in January vouched for each other throughout a hiring process that was conducted by one of their subordinates, records show.

Personnel documents obtained by Pure Politics through Kentucky’s Open Records law raise more questions about whether the hiring process was rigged. Earlier this month, the state’s Personnel Board decided to investigate.

Two appointees of Agriculture Commissioner Richie Farmer — Danita Fentress-Laird and Kathy Harp Willis — were both hired in January into newly-created merit positions of assistant directors. Moving from appointed non-merit positions into protected merit jobs is sometimes referred to “burrowing.”

And during the process, the two women vouched for each other — with Fentress-Laird listing Willis as a character reference and when questions were raised about Willis’ hiring, Fentress-Laird signed a document claiming it wasn’t fixed.

The Personnel Board’s vice chairman, Larry Gillis, first requested the board to investigate the hirings at a meeting earlier this month. Gillis is an employee of the Personnel Cabinet who applied for both of the Agriculture Commission jobs in question.

Gillis has said the process contained multiple inconsistencies, as well as some suspicious coincidences.

For instance, Fentress-Laird and Willis resigned from their appointed positions in the Agriculture Department on the same day, Jan. 15, 2011, according to the documents obtained by Pure Politics.

Both wrote in nearly identical letters stating that their resignations were conditional on their appointments to assistant director positions, protected under the merit system.

“To whom it may concern, I hereby tender my resignation as division director for the Kentucky Department of Agriculture on January 15, 2011 pending my appointment as (respective positions), Kentucky Department of Agriculture on January 16, 2011,” the resignation letters said.

The description of the positions eventually awarded to Fentress-Laird and Willis also were nearly identical and included vague job duties.

“Provides support to the Division Director. Provides Management Assistance to branches and sections within the division. Makes recommendations to director. Performs duties of director in directors absence. Attend professional meetings and updates staff,” the descriptions read.

After those jobs were posted on the state hiring website, hundreds of people applied for them. including Gillis. Gillis sent an e-mail Oct. 20, 2011, asking for details about the job to hiring contact, Alisa Edwards.

Edwards reported directly to Fentress-Laird.

“These positions are under the Office of Strategic Planning and Administration which deals with personnel, budget, information technology and public relations,” Edwards wrote back to Gillis.

When Gillis, an assistant director at the Personnel Cabinet, asked for a more specific job description Fentress-Laird responded to him.

“This position will be dealing with our disciplinary process, providing representation at the Personnel Board and handling our internal/external complaint investigations,” Fentress-Laird wrote to Gillis.

Messages left for Fentress-Laird and Willis were not returned. Bill Clary, spokesman for the Agriculture Department, said the agency wouldn’t comment.

Of the 250 people who applied for the Assistant Director of Personnel position, six were offered interviews. Five were military veteran candidates, as required by state hiring laws, and the sixth was Fentress-Laird.

Edwards, who again worked for Fentress-Laird at the time, conducted the interviews. Ultimately, she picked her own boss as the new assistant director of personnel position.

For the other position in question, the assistant director of information technology, Edwards once again conducted six interviews. Five were military veterans and the sixth person was Kathy Willis. Willis got the job.

By taking the merit positions, Fentress-Laird took a roughly $2,500-a-year pay cut. But Willis received a more than $4,000 pay raise by taking her new merit position.

In hiring Willis, taxpayers are on the hook for her $62,000 salary plus her pension, because she previously retired from state government in 2008. But she returned to the same position eight months later.

At the time, Willis said she had no pre-arranged agreement to come back as a state worker after retirement. Fentress-Laird signed that paperwork as a supervisor to confirm no deal was on the table.

And that close relationship went both ways.

Fentress-Laird listed Willis as one of three character references on her application this spring, personnel documents obtained by Pure Politics show.

Additionally, Fentress-Laird’s personnel records show that she graduated from Clay County High School in 1984. Current Commissioner of Agriculture Richie Farmer was a member of the Clay County High School boys basketball team starting in 1983 and was a member of the team during their 1983-1984 run to the state basketball tournament.

The Personnel Board will decide how to go about their investigation into these hires at next month’s meeting.

You can see Pure Politics’ video report below:

-Reporting and video production by Kenny Colston


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