Apr 25, 2013 6:40 PM
(AP) - Kentucky sports hero turned politician Richie Farmer pleaded not guilty Thursday to criminal charges related to his management of the Department of Agriculture.
The basketball icon whose jersey hangs from the rafters of the University of Kentucky's Rupp Arena was charged in an indictment earlier this week with four counts of misappropriating government property and money and one count of soliciting property in exchange for a government grant.
Farmer appeared Thursday before U.S. Magistrate Robert Wier in U.S. District Court in Lexington with his attorney, Guthrie True.
True entered the plea for Farmer, who answered only "yes" and "yes, sir" in response to questions from Wier.
Farmer, 43, is free until his trial, which was set for July 2.
He was surrounded by a large group of reporters as he entered the courthouse late Thursday afternoon and said nothing.
Farmer served as agriculture commissioner from 2004 through 2011. He could face up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine on each of the five counts.
Prosecutors said they also will seek $450,000 - the amount that was allegedly misappropriated - from the now-unemployed Farmer, a Republican who was elected twice as agriculture commissioner in a state that is predominately Democrat by registration.
U.S. Attorney Kerry Harvey outlined a litany of alleged misdeeds at a press conference Monday in Lexington, not far from the university where two decades ago Farmer was part of one of the nation's most storied basketball programs.
Harvey alleged that Farmer used government employees to work on his Frankfort home, even build a basketball court in his backyard, and that he hired friends, including his girlfriend, as special assistants who did little or no work for the agriculture department. Harvey alleged that Farmer directed agency employees to drive him on personal errands, babysit his children, mow his lawn and transport his dog, and that Farmer misappropriated agency property for his own use.
The indictment said Farmer used an account that mingled private and government funds to purchase gifts, including customized Remington rifles and embossed Case knives, for visiting state agriculture commissioners during a 2008 national conference. The indictment alleges Farmer kept many of the gifts for himself.
On the solicitation count, the grand jury alleged Farmer in 2009 accepted an unnamed "thing of value" from a motor vehicle dealership in Whitley County in exchange for a state grant.
Farmer's lawyer, Guthrie True, said earlier this week that Farmer's political foes may be responsible for the charges.
Though he played more than 20 years ago, Farmer, who played on a UK team dubbed the "Unforgettables," remains a household name in Kentucky.
State Auditor Adam Edelen, whose review of the Department of Agriculture led to the federal criminal investigation, said the case shows that "no public official, regardless of position, power or popularity, is above the law."
Frankfort attorney Larry Forgy, a Republican activist and Farmer supporter, said convicting the homegrown athlete will be a tall order in a big basketball state like Kentucky, which is also home to UK rival and reigning NCAA champions, the University of Louisville Cardinals.
"The feds just as well get used to the idea that they can't convict Richie but one place in Kentucky and that would be at the federal courthouse in Louisville ... with the prosecutors wearing Cardinal red jackets with a Cardinal emblem the size of a sunflower on the breast pocket," Forgy said. "Otherwise, it will be either a hung jury or Richie will come clear."
(Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)