The Executive Branch Ethics Commission during its regularly scheduled meeting on March 18, 2013, issued eight Initiating Orders as a result of multiple preliminary investigations, some of which were initiated early last year. These investigations concerned allegations of violations of the Executive Branch Code of Ethics primarily by employees of the Kentucky Department of Agriculture, including the Commissioner of Agriculture himself. During the course of these investigations, the Ethics Commission has to date found probable cause to believe that the eight individuals against whom these Initiating Orders were issued, seven of whom were or are currently employed by the Department of Agriculture, committed violations of the Code of Ethics.
The Ethics Commission’s Initiating Orders contain the charges relating to these alleged violations of the Ethics Code and serve to initiate administrative proceedings against the charged individuals in order to determine whether the alleged violations did in fact occur. Upon a finding pursuant to an administrative hearing before an impartial hearing officer that there has been clear and convincing proof of a violation of the Executive Branch Code of Ethics, or by means of a settlement agreement in which the accused admits to such a violation, the Ethics Commission may:
* Issue an order requiring the violator to cease and desist the violation
* Issue an order requiring the violator to file any report, statement, or other information as required by the Code of Ethics
* In writing, publicly reprimand the violator for potential violations of the law
* In writing, recommend to the violator's appointing authority that the violator be removed or suspended from office or employment, with a recommendation for the length of suspension; and/or
* Issue an order requiring the violator to pay a civil penalty of up to $5,000 per violation.
Initiating Orders were issued by the Ethics Commission against the following individuals, with the number of counts or alleged violations against each as indicated:
1. Richard D. Farmer, II, former Commissioner, Kentucky Department of Agriculture – 42 counts;
2. Bruce D. Harper, former Director of Outreach and Development, Kentucky Department of Agriculture (current Deputy Commissioner, Kentucky Department of Agriculture) – 3 counts;
3. Chris Parsons, former Agricultural Inspector I, Office of State Veterinarian, Kentucky Department of Agriculture, and former Agriculture Inspector I, Division of Regulation and Inspection, Office of Consumer & Environmental Protection, Kentucky Department of Agriculture – 5 counts;
4. George “Doug” Begley, former Agricultural Inspector I, Office of Consumer & Environmental Protection, Kentucky Department of Agriculture – 5 counts;
5. William E. Mobley, former Special Assistant, Division of Value-Added Animal and Aquaculture Production, Kentucky Department of Agriculture – 2 counts;
6. Steven C. Mobley, former Director, Agriculture Marketing and Agribusiness Recruitment, Kentucky Department of Agriculture – 3 counts;
7. Stephanie L. Sandmann, former Staff Assistant, Office of the Commissioner, Kentucky Department of Agriculture – 1 count;
8. Rhonda Monroe, Assistant Executive Director, Kentucky Registry of Election Finance – 3 counts.
Summaries of these eight Initiating Orders are attached in which the significant portions of each count contained therein are provided. While the Ethics Commission’s preliminary investigations are required to be confidential, once Initiating Orders are issued and the administrative hearing process begins the matter becomes public. The Initiating Orders are thus the first available open record in this process.
In addition to the Initiating Orders, the Ethics Commission also issued an Advisory Opinion, attached, in which the Ethics Commission opines that the Code of Ethics obligates public servants to refuse to comply with orders of such a nature that anyone of ordinary sense and understanding would recognize as being contrary to the Code of Ethics. During these recent investigations, staff of the Commission all too frequently heard the excuse from state employees, merit and non-merit alike, that they were “just following orders,” or words to that effect, to explain their involvement in, or enablement of, conduct that was clearly contrary to the Code of Ethics. This is not an acceptable excuse. Such behavior, even under orders, undermines the public confidence in the integrity of its government and public servants. When faced with such a situation, or when compelled to comply with an order that the public servant knows to be unethical or that will result in an outcome that is contrary to the provisions of the Code of Ethics, the Commission encourages the public servant to promptly and accurately report such conduct to the Commission. Reports to the Commission are confidential and a public servant who makes a good-faith report of a violation to the Commission is protected from reprisal under the Whistleblower statute. The Commission is only able to address misconduct when it is aware that misconduct has occurred. Unethical environments within state agencies should not be tolerated by public servants, but rather the conduct that is creating the unethical environment should be reported to the Commission so that those guilty of misconduct are held accountable and situations that are contrary to good government are not allowed to continue indefinitely without consequence.
During its meeting the Ethics Commission also approved a Settlement Agreement and issued an Agreed Final Order in an ongoing Administrative Proceeding involving another former Special Assistant with the Department of Agriculture, Mark Jackson. In the settlement Mr. Jackson admits that he violated the Code of Ethics by failing to file a completed 2011 Statement of Financial Disclosure within the time period required by statute and agreed to pay a $100 civil penalty, received a public reprimand, and waived any right to appeal. Jackson had previously filed the required Statement of Financial Disclosure.