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Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner James Comer has spent most of his first few months in office trying to shepherd his Department through both an audit and a positive transitional period. Comer and State Representative Rick Rand both alluded to the Department’s recent negative publicity during Comer’s visit with several local residents at the Trimble County Cooperative Extension Office on June 29.
“We have a lot of big ideas and a lot of new energy in the department,” Comer said during the Trimble County visit. “You’ve read a little bit about the Kentucky Department of Ag in the paper lately and some of it has not been the best. I will tell you we’ve got new people in and I’m new. We’ve got a new work ethic there. We’ve got a new culture there. We are being transparent. Rick Rand will know the next session where every penny of our budget’s going.”
Rand, Chairman of the Kentucky House of Representatives Appropriations and Revenue Committee, said, “He stepped into a hornet’s nest over there,” State Representative said of Comer. “We might as well say it. We all know it and he’s done an outstanding job of righting that ship.”
On Jan. 11, nine days after succeeding embattled former University of Kentucky Wildcats basketball star Richie Farmer as commissioner, Comer formally requested that Auditor of Public Accounts Adam Edelen conduct a special examination of the Department. Comer said at the time the audit was necessary to restore morale within the Department and to ensure the integrity of its operations.
“The KDA has some talented career employees and my job is to ensure they have a healthy and financially sound place to work,” Comer said at the time. The audit was important to ensure that the agriculture community has “full confidence in this office so together we can move forward.”
When Edelen released the findings of the audit at the end of April, he said Farmer’s style of management at the Ag Department had fostered what he termed “a toxic culture of entitlement. 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, adding the “volume and recklessness of the abuses shock the conscience.”
Rand, who served together with Comer for more than a decade in the General Assembly, acknowledged the uphill battle the new commissioner has had since taking the helm at the Department of Agriculture.
“I would imagine the first few months has probably taken virtually all of his time trying to get through this audit, trying to get his staff in place, trying to get people motivated and interested in their jobs,” Rand said. “I know for a fact he’s doing an outstanding job of doing that because we hear those things. The Department of Agriculture … is very important to Kentucky—not just agriculture but to all business. Agriculture is a $5 billion industry in Kentucky. That’s huge!”