Two women involved in Ag. Dept. hiring investigation resign, Personnel Board to continue investigation

07/08/2011 11:31 AM

The state Personnel Board voted to continue to investigate two merit hirings in the Department of Agriculture, despite the two women under investigation having resigned their merit positions.

Danita Fentress-Laird and Kathy Harp Willis were hired into merit positions in January after serving as political appointees to Commissioner Richie Farmer.

According to Bill Clary, a spokesman for the Department of Agriculture, the two women have resigned and have been reappointed to their previous non-merit positions as division directors.

Clary declined to give a reason for the resignation of Fentress-Laird and Willis, saying the department doesn’t comment on personnel matters.

When asked for the department’s response to the Personnel Board’s decision to continue the investigation, Clary repeated his previous statement.

The investigation started when Personnel Board vice chairman Larry Gillis requested an investigation into the hiring of the two assistant director merit positions that Fentress-Laird and Willis were hired into.

Gillis alleges that the two women were burrowed, a slang term for putting political appointees into protected merit positions in order to protect them when a new commissioner of agriculture is elected this fall.

Previously, Pure Politics reported on the closeness of the two women and of the similarities in the job postings and job descriptions of the two assistant director positions.

Gillis’ investigation targets the two women and Steve Kelly, the executive director in charge of them. He has repeatedly said his investigation has nothing to do with politics and has tried to distance Farmer from his investigation request. Gillis is elected by fellow merit employees to serve on the board.

Gillis asked for the investigation after applying for the two merit positions and becoming suspicious about the process. He currently is an assistant director in the Personnel Cabinet.


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