Edelen takes the farm for government transparency

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Actor Ed Norton warned: “Fame is very corrosive and you have to guard very strictly against it.”

Unfortunately for Richie Farmer, star guard for the 1992 University of Kentucky Wildcats, a new report by State Auditor Adam Edelen indicates he did not guard very well against fame’s corrosive nature – at least not during his eight-year stint as the commonwealth’s agriculture commissioner.

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Edelen’s audit of the Department of Agriculture under Farmer reeks of the hubris of someone who allowed his celebrity status and retired jersey number to lure him into thinking he was exempted from accountability to the employees and taxpayers he was there to serve.

Farmer soon will have his day – probably in court. He has able and vigorous representation in Guthrie True, a highly capable criminal defense attorney.

Criminal charges presented in a court of law would further shed light on Farmer’s mismanagement and unethical actions.

While such behavior may have landed the former commissioner a basketball court paid for by taxpayers in his backyard, it also shamed his department, took taxpayers to the cleaners and placed the people who worked for him in a very difficult position.

Some of his staff apparently built that basketball court, chauffeured Farmer’s dog and had to watch as he signed time sheets for his girlfriend even though Edelen’s audit concluded she did “no significant work (that) can be confirmed.”

Whatever Farmer’s fate, Edelen deserves kudos for his investigation and the public release of the results.

The power of such transparency offers numerous collateral benefits.

Even if Farmer is cleared of criminal wrongdoing, the promise of transparency already has resulted in the agriculture department being better managed with improved employee morale and increased taxpayer confidence.

If, as Louisville native and former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously said, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant,” then Edelen’s investigation of Farmer’s royal tenure is a disinfectant fully accompanied by a cleaning odor drifting over all state government agencies, sending the message: Basketball icon or not, you will be held accountable for the manner in which you handle taxpayers’ dollars.

No doubt Edelen, a Democrat, and Republican James Comer, Farmer’s successor who asked the auditor to investigate and who has led the way to a much-more responsible agency, took heat for putting partisanship to the side for this investigation.

I’m sure Comer heard it from GOP partisans that they hope Edelen is as diligent about investigating other state agencies as he is about one run by a Republican – as if somehow only that would establish legitimacy for this ag-department inquiry.

It reminds me of Republican whiners during the Fletcher administration, which was investigated by then-Attorney General Greg Stumbo for hiring, promoting and firing state workers based on their political loyalties.

Partisan cronies tried to convince me that Stumbo’s brand of political gamesmanship was somehow worse than their own.

“Every administration does it; it’s just the spoils of victory,” some said – as if that’s an acceptable excuse for our public officials’ unlawful or unethical behavior.

However, such an attitude too often results in institutional silence regarding the way the people’s business gets handled behind the scenes.

Taxpayers will be pleased to know that Edelen isn’t staying on the farm. He’s planning a fact-finding mission to shine the light on Kentucky’s taxing districts.

Much more is known about UK’s shooting statistics than about these agencies. And what we do know doesn’t sound good.

No one in Frankfort seems to know how many of these districts actually exist or how many taxpayer dollars pass their hands.

Edelen plans on showing us the results by the end of the year. Taxpayers probably won’t like what they see. But see, they must.

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