As the University of Kentucky Wildcats prepare for their NCAA basketball tournament showdown with Louisville on Friday, one of the most popular players from UK’s storied past is reporting to federal prison.
Richie Farmer is scheduled to begin serving a 27-month sentence today at a facility in West Virginia.
The former Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner pleaded guilty last year to corruption charges related to his two terms in that office.
It's been a dramatic fall from grace for Farmer, who parlayed his basketball fame into what was once a promising political career.
Richie Farmer became a basketball hero in high school, leading eastern Kentucky’s Clay County High School to its first state title in 1987. At Kentucky, he became one of The Unforgettables, four UK seniors who led the Wildcats to the brink of the 1992 Final Four, losing to Duke in the regional final on Christian Laetner's overtime buzzer-beater.
The Unforgettables' jerseys, including Farmer’s number 32, hang from the rafters of Rupp Arena.
Farmer's popularity was still strong in 2003, when he was elected Agriculture Commissioner and four years later, when the Republican was re-elected-----the top vote-getter on the constitutional office ballot.
In 2010, then-Kentucky Senate President David Williams hoped Farmer’s standing with voters would help him in his bid to unseat Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear, and he tapped Farmer to be his running mate.
In a stump speech at the Fancy Farm Picnic, Farmer took a jab at Beshear’s running mate, former Louisville Mayor Jerry Abramson.
“Some folks did pretty well while he was mayor. One of his friends even got a no-show job for $85,000 a year. That’s pretty good work if you can get it,” Farmer said.
But things weren’t going well for the campaign or for Farmer. His wife of 13 years filed for divorce shortly after the campaign was launched, and there was talk surfacing of financial abuses and other problems in the agriculture department under Farmer’s watch.
Williams and Farmer were defeated in a landslide in the 2011 general election.
Kentuckians also elected a new agriculture commissioner, and one of Republican James Comer’s first actions was to request an audit of the department under Farmer’s administration.
The results of that review were announced by Auditor Adam Edelen in the spring of 2012. Edelen said the dozens of abuses he found—as he put it—“shock the conscience.”
It alleged that Farmer hired friends who apparently did little or no work and used state employees to perform personal errands.
“He reportedly shot a deer, illegally, from the cab of a state vehicle, then ordered a state employee to field dress it for him,” Edelen read from his report.
Last year, Farmer was indicted on federal criminal charges of misusing state funds and using his position for personal gain.
As part of a plea agreement that also settled state charges, Farmer will serve 27 months in prison and will have to pay tens of thousands of dollars in restitution.
Famer hasn’t said much publicly about his case, but apologized in court and after his sentencing.
“You make bad decisions and poor judgments and you own up those mistakes and you move on. And that’s what I hope the people of state will be willing to do,” Farmer told reporters outside the federal courthouse in January.
Joshua Lars Weill wrote about Richie Farmer’s basketball and political careers in an online piece called “The Legend of Richie Farmer,” published by Yahoo Sports.
Weill, a Kentucky native and UK alumnus, says he agrees with those who contend that, despite his mistakes, Farmer’s jersey should remain in the rafters of Rupp Arena.
“I don’t’ see any reason that his basketball career and his time at UK should be tarnished by anything that happed politically or personally later. That seems punitive to me in a way that really doesn’t make sense,” Weill said.
There’s no parole in the federal court system, but Richie Farmer could have some time shaved off for good behavior.