FRANKFORT, Ky. – En route to having his jersey retired by the University of Kentucky, Richie Farmer embodied the traits of a storied basketball program that's as deeply ingrained in the culture of its state as any in the country. He was a hardworking, sweet-shooting guard from Appalachia beloved as part of a steadfast group of players who turned the team around after some tough years.
But as a politician, the sports icon fostered what state auditors would describe as "a toxic culture of entitlement" while he ran the state Department of Agriculture. A newly released state audit found that Farmer had hired his girlfriend at the agency — though she was rarely seen performing any work — and that he used government workers like servants to chauffer his dog, mow his lawn, take him shopping and even field dress a deer he once shot from his government vehicle.
Farmer's athletic fame launched him on a political career that has plummeted over the past year, largely because of the alleged abuses at the state agency he was twice elected to oversee. State Auditor Adam Edelen released findings Monday from a government review that painted an ugly picture of Farmer's tenure and could lead to a criminal investigation.
"The responsibility of holding accountable a man I once cheered as a kid is a grim one," Edelen told reporters. "But the law makes no distinction between icons and the rest of us, and neither do I."
Though he played more than 20 years ago, the homegrown athlete from impoverished Clay County remains a household name for fans of one of the country's most successful programs. His jersey hangs in the rafters of Rupp Arena alongside the likes of Dan Issel, Pat Riley, Kenny Walker and Sam Bowie.
The state's top prep player as a high-school senior, Farmer was a sharpshooter who spent much of his career as a reserve before earning a role in the starting lineup as a senior. The reasons for fans' reverence go beyond his stats, though, which include a scoring average of 7.6 during his career from 1988 to 1992.
Rather, he and his classmates, dubbed the "Unforgettables," stuck with UK despite a recruiting scandal, embarrassing losing season and coaching change that led other players to desert the program. By the time Farmer and three other seniors graduated, the program had returned to the upper echelon of the sport.
That's partly why defenders started stepping forward immediately after the scathing report was released. They felt that Farmer, a Republican, was being attacked. Two-time Republican gubernatorial candidate Larry Forgy insisted the review was done for political reasons by a Democratic state auditor.
"It looks like to me they think there's still some life left in Richie, and they want to squeeze it out," Forgy said.
His former coach, Rick Pitino, said he knows nothing about the accusations, but otherwise defended him during a press conference Monday at his current school, the University of Louisville.
"I love Richie Farmer, always will love Richie Farmer," Pitino said. "He can do no wrong in my eyes. So I don't know what you're talking about. And if he did something wrong, I'll pray for him."
Edelen turned the audit report over to Attorney General Jack Conway, who will decide whether a criminal investigation is warranted. A spokesman would say only that it's under review.
Farmer had been a rising star within the Kentucky GOP until last year's unsuccessful run for lieutenant governor on a ticket with Republican state Senate President David Williams. They lost overwhelmingly to incumbent Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear, in part because of the brewing scandal.
Farmer's wife filed for divorce early in that failed campaign, saying only that their marriage had been irretrievably broken. Before the campaign, or marriage, had concluded, Farmer had put his girlfriend on his agency's payroll. The election was just 10 days past when the Louisville newspaper, The Courier-Journal, reported the hiring of the girlfriend.
Farmer could also face administrative sanctions for failing to publicly disclose gifts received while he was agriculture commissioner.
His attorney, Guthrie True, said Farmer's standing as an athlete meant he often received the gifts cited by auditors ranging from sweat suits to a free load of concrete to build a basketball court at his Frankfort home. Edelen said that is among the perks that should have been disclosed on reports that all elected officials have to file.
True said Farmer received the perks mentioned in the audit because of his status as a basketball icon, not as a politician.
"Those people, as we know in our culture, all across the nation but particularly here, they're celebrities," True said. "They're somewhat idols in many respects. And so I think what the auditors probably failed to recognize is that much of what he received along these lines don't have anything to do with Richie Famer, commissioner of agriculture. They have to do with Richie Farmer, No. 32. Richie Farmer, a member of the Unforgettables."
But Edelen said the "volume and recklessness of the abuses shock the conscience."
"The former commissioner had state employees on state time take him hunting and shopping, build a basketball court in his backyard, mow his lawn and even chauffer his dog," Edelen said.
The investigators cited "an extravagant conference" hosted by Farmer that cost Kentucky taxpayers more than $96,000. They said Farmer directed his staff to order lavish gifts, including rifles, cigar boxes and watches for the conference.
But investigators said Farmer took most of the items home after the conference, including 13 rifles, seven of which he later returned to the state.
Edelen said the agency purchased two 60-inch televisions and wall brackets for $4,192. One was mounted in a conference room and the other in Farmer's office. Edelen said the state paid $60 to expedite shipping so the TVs would be in place for Farmer to watch the NCAA basketball tournament.
True said Farmer is "elated" to have the audit behind him. True said he expects no criminal charges, but he said some of the allegations could end up with a state commission that decides on administrative sanctions.
"I just don't see anything here that any law enforcement agency is going to likely get excited about pursuing in terms of criminal prosecution," True said. "I would be shocked."