- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 1, 2012

FRANKFORT, KY. (AP) - 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.

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