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KY: Hemp Complaint Dismissed - State Official Noncommittal On Issue

Katelyn Baker

Well-Known Member
The Kentucky Executive Branch Ethics Commission on Monday apparently dismissed a complaint lodged against former state agriculture commissioner James Comer alleging he played party politics in issuing memorandums of understanding to allow individuals grow industrial hemp.

The complaint alleged he only awarded the MOUs to Republicans and shut Democrats out of the process during his tenure as state ag commissioner.

"It took them less than 60 seconds to dismiss it," Comer said in a telephone interview with the Daily News on Tuesday about the ethics complaint. The Tompkinsville Republican said the complaint against him "was not credible."

A state official remained mum about the issue Tuesday.

"We can neither confirm or deny that we received a complaint or took any action," Commission Executive Director Kathryn Gabhart said Tuesday in a telephone interview. She said the same phrase on the telephone at least three times to a reporter seeking information.

The commission met in Frankfort on Monday then went into closed session. Gabhart said the confidentiality of those discussions is protected under state statute. Complaints are also confidential, she said.

Former two-time Kentucky Democratic state treasurer Jonathan Miller declined to comment on the issue before the state ethics commission on Tuesday in a telephone interview, citing confidentiality. Miller did say that if Comer is not served with paperwork by the state ethics panel, an investigation has not been opened up against him.

Comer said he has not been served with paperwork.

Miller is also former state chairman of the Kentucky Democratic Party and said he has no concerns that Democrats have been kept out of the state MOU process.

Growing industrial hemp in Kentucky is still in the test pilot stage with growing opportunities overseen by several of the state's universities, including Western Kentucky University. Individuals can also grow industrial hemp, Comer said. Miller, who represents clients who are in the state's fledgling industrial hemp industry as an attorney for Frost, Brown and Todd, said that the industrial hemp industry is making great strides. He added work continues in Washington, D.C., among public officials and those in the industry to chart a course for the industry's bright future in Kentucky.

Comer said new products made from industrial hemp grown in Kentucky are entering the marketplace and finding an acceptance among consumers.

David Barhorst, owner of Kentucky Hemp Ventures Inc., told the newspaper Tuesday that the state of Kentucky doesn't have the proper legal framework in place to conduct an industrial hemp program and if the ethics commission did turn down his complaint against Comer, Barhorst's said his next step is to appeal the matter to Franklin Circuit Court. The ethics complaint is not an appealable issue to the court that sits in the shadow of the state capital, according to those familiar with the process.

"I haven't heard anything," Barhorst said of the status of the ethics complaint.

Barhorst, of Breckenridge County, said he initially received an MOU to grow hemp then was informed by the state Dec. 18, 2015, that his MOU had been denied.

"He lied on the application," Comer said Tuesday. "He said he had a cooperative and he didn't." Comer ended his term as state ag commissioner on Dec. 31, 2015.

Comer said current Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles could grant Barhorst an MOU if he qualified.

Barhorst said he has a federal permit for "certified seed" from the federal government to grow hemp and said he planted 60 acres of hemp and harvested 40.

"The corruption is there because the whole program is illegal," Barhorst said of the Kentucky legal framework for growing industrial hemp.

Comer said the state of Kentucky worked with U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's office when the U.S. Farm Bill was formulated and that ensured that the Kentucky industrial hemp legal framework was correct.

In a copy of the complaint disclosed to the newspaper, Roger Ford of the Kentucky Hemp Growers Cooperative Association Inc., of Pikeville, and Barhorst alleged Comer didn't fairly award the hemp MOUs. He told the paper that he didn't receive an MOU because "we didn't have enough growing experience."

Comer said Ford made an application without being able to state he had the necessary equipment at his disposal to grow industrial hemp.

They also contend the MOU process froze out Democrats. Comer said he didn't directly issue or deny MOUs. The process was handled by a now-disbanded board that went out of existence when the federal Farm Bill went into effect.

Comer said it is his understanding that Ford's MOU issued by Quarles has since expired, Comer said.

"Quarles didn't renew it," Comer said.

"Anybody can file an ethics complaint," Comer said, adding that Barhorst and Ford are known throughout Kentucky for "frivolous" complaints. "I don't think these are credible people."

"I'll get off the phone with you and find out," Barhorst said Tuesday of the ethics commission's disposition of the complaint.

When asked by a reporter Tuesday, Gabhart didn't know who Ford was. Barhorst, who called the paper Tuesday in response to a call to Ford, said the ethics commission is very much aware of who he and Ford are. Ford is a partner at Charro Development LLC in Pikeville, a Kentucky oil and energy company, according to his LinkedIn profile listed online.

Barhorst insisted that state legislation that would have fixed the legal framework for growing industrial hemp in Kentucky didn't pass last session.

The mission of the Executive Branch Ethics Commission is to promote the ethical conduct of elected officials, officers and other employees in the executive branch of state government, according to the commission's website.

The commission's staff provides state employees, executive agency lobbyists and the public with information, guidance and training aimed at promoting ethical conduct of executive branch employees, the commission's website noted. ​

In mid-May, Comer won the GOP nomination for the 1st District U.S. House of Representatives seat being vacated by Ed Whitfield, who chose not to seek re-election. Comer faces Democrat Sam Gaskins in the Nov. 8 general election. Gaskins was unopposed in the primary.

Comer said industrial hemp has turned out to be a real success story in Kentucky.

"There are good companies coming into the state," Comer said. "This year, there are probably 3,000 acres of hemp planted in Kentucky."

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News Moderator: Katelyn Baker 420 MAGAZINE ®
Full Article: Hemp Complaint Dismissed - State Official Noncommittal On Issue
Author: Charles Mason
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Website: Bowling Green Daily News
 
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