Report: Farmer, aides took trip amid budget woes - WDRB 41 Louisville News

Report: Farmer, aides took trip amid budget woes

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LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner Richie Farmer and three aides spent $10,000 on an eight-day Caribbean trip as the state struggled with budget cuts that led to worker furloughs and Medicaid reductions, a newspaper reported.

The Lexington Herald-Leader, relying on state travel records, reported that Farmer and the aides attended the annual meeting of the Southern Association of State Departments of Agriculture, or SASDA, on St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Participants stayed at The Buccaneer hotel, a pink beach front resort recently named one of the "Top Ten Classic Caribbean Hotels."

Farmer is leaving the agriculture commissioner post after eight years in 2011 to run as a Republican candidate for lieutenant governor on a slate with Senate President David Williams, R-Burkesville.

Despite the state's budget woes, Farmer's spokesman Bill Clary said Farmer was comfortable with the trip's expense. Attendees discussed issues facing state agriculture officials, such as the farm bill in Congress, he said.

"He was cognizant when he went that there might be some people who later question it," Clary said. "But the commissioner goes to this every year because he believes it's important. He is a past president of this organization and believes that the networking with his peers is useful to him."

University of Kentucky political scientist Don Gross said the trip could hurt Farmer's image.

"Ten thousand dollars isn't necessarily a lot of money for state government, which deals in the many millions of dollars," he said. "But it's a lot of money to most of us. The average Kentucky voter would love to have that much money for their own Caribbean vacation."

The SASDA meeting agenda included about 13 hours of business sessions and an agricultural tour over the three days, June 23-25. But records show that Farmer's delegation arrived June 21 and departed June 28. The group stayed for optional events sponsored by the association, including golf outings, a visit to a rum distillery and a tour of the historic town of Christiansted.

Traveling with Farmer were Rodman Craig Maffet, his chief of staff; John Roberts, executive director of consumer and environmental protection; and Robert Stout, the state veterinarian. The four men also brought their wives.

Clary said the four men paid for their wives' travel and charged the state for their own airfare, hotel rooms, food, registration and other related expenses.

Farmer personally paid for a $100 "health spa treatment," plus a $20 tip, that appeared on his hotel bill, Clary said.

Department of Agriculture expense reports show that Farmer handed $10 tips to drivers, bellhops, front-desk attendants and others throughout his stay. He also charged $50 baggage fees going to and returning from the trip.

The association represents the agriculture departments of 15 states from Texas to Maryland and Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. Its annual meetings are held on the home turf of its current president, Clary said.

This year, that was Louis Petersen Jr. of the Virgin Islands.

National Association of State Departments of Agriculture public policy director Bob Ehart said state spending cuts meant not all of the states who are association members sent representatives to this year's meeting.

"A few of our states, because of budgetary concerns, did not travel down there," Ehart said.

SASDA met in Oklahoma City in 2009. Travel records indicate that Farmer and the same three aides stayed for five days in Oklahoma City and spent about half as much money as they did during their eight days in the Virgin Islands this year.

Farmer's delegation went early to St. Croix and stayed late so the four men could have informal time talking with counterparts from other states, Clary said.

"A lot more is learned in the networking than in the general sessions," Clary said.

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