Extravagant conference on taxpayers’ dime
The exam includes six findings related to the 2008 Southern Association of State Departments of Agriculture (SASDA) conference hosted by Farmer.
The total cost of the conference to Kentucky taxpayers was approximately $96,000, yet it is unclear what overall benefit to Kentucky resulted from these expenses. The department sent $5,000 to the SASDA treasurer in 2007 to be used for the 2008 conference. It also gave a commodity group a $15,000 grant with the stipulation that $10,000 be given to SASDA for the conference. Based on interviews with department staff and documentation, it appears the department attempted to conceal or disguise much of its financial support used to offset the 2008 conference costs.
The department spent $15,635 to register 53 employees to attend the conference. In addition, many of those same employees were used as staff for the conference, resulting in $53,310 in costs to the state for more than 2,000 regular hours and overtime.
Farmer reportedly directed staff to order excessive numbers of gifts, including rifles, rifle cases, knives, cigar boxes, shopping mall gift cards and watches. The majority of the excess items were taken to his home after the conference. For example, although there are only 16 other states in the organization, the department ordered 25 rifles, each worth $449. Only 13 commissioners, including the former Kentucky commissioner, attended the event. The former commissioner personally picked up and signed for 13 rifles, seven of which he has since returned to the department. Six rifles remain unaccounted for.
“The extravagance of this conference that had less than 200 attendees shows a stunning disregard for the difficulties faced by Kentuckians who work for a living,” Edelen said.
The exam details four findings related to questionable spending of federal and state money.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service gave the department ginseng it confiscated during an illegal harvest. USFWS directed the department to sell the ginseng and use the proceeds to benefit the ginseng industry in Kentucky. The exam found the department spent $43,000 of the $241,000 proceeds toward the purchase of vehicles for its animal enforcement officers, who do not perform duties associated with the ginseng program.
This finding will be referred to the Office of Inspector General of the USFWS.
The department paid a grant recipient the full amount of a $15,000 grant derived from tobacco settlement funds, despite concerns raised by one employee that the grant recipient was not meeting the requirements for reimbursement.
“Tobacco settlement money is intended to help Kentucky farmers and diversify the state’s agriculture economy,” Edelen said. “Misuse of these funds should not be tolerated,” Edelen said.
The department purchased two 60-inch televisions and the corresponding wall brackets for a total cost of $4,192. One was mounted in an executive conference room and the other is mounted in the commissioner’s office. The department paid roughly $60 to expedite the shipping of the brackets. Staff reported that the expedited shipping was to ensure the televisions would be available in time for Farmer to watch the NCAA basketball tournament.