Former Lawrence Mayor Jeremy Farmer pleaded guilty Wednesday in federal court in Topeka to one count of interstate transportation of stolen funds stemming from his time as leader of the Lawrence food bank Just Food.
Farmer, 33, had originally pleaded not guilty on Sept. 8 to the felony but changed his plea to guilty on Wednesday.
Neither he nor his attorney, John Cowles, would comment Wednesday on the case.
Farmer admitted to the court that the theft of thousands of dollars took place while he was executive director of the nonprofit Just Food, whose mission is to feed the hungry in Douglas County.
He was hired at Just Food in 2011 and resigned from that position — and from his seat on the Lawrence City Commission — in August 2015. His resignation came about after it was revealed he had not paid more than $50,000 in federal and state payroll taxes on behalf of Just Food.
At the time Farmer said the taxes were unpaid due to an oversight.
Farmer also admitted on Wednesday to changing Just Food’s financial documents to conceal his embezzlement.
Though the felony charge Farmer pleaded guilty to says that he stole more than $5,000, estimates from Just Food have placed that number closer to $55,000.
U.S. District Judge Carlos Murguia accepted Farmer’s plea and ordered the completion of a pre-sentence investigation.
Depending on Farmer’s criminal history, which will be a part of the pre-sentence investigation, he could face up to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000.
Murguia allowed Farmer to continue to be free on a bond of $5,000.
Sentencing will be set at a later date.
News of Farmer’s guilty plea offered no joy to Just Food’s board of directors, said board president Will Katz.
“It’s not like a day of celebration for Just Food or anything like that,” he said. “We’ve been through a lot in the last 14 months and the board of directors, staff and volunteers have tried to stay pretty rooted in the present and the future.”
As for restitution from Farmer, Katz said Just Food isn't counting on it. That's “something we pretty much left in the hands of the court system,” he said. “It’s not anything we have control over.”
Every day, Just Food serves between 150 to 200 families, said Executive Director Elizabeth Keever. Last year the nonprofit saw a 10 percent clientele increase and this year’s increase is closer to 15 percent, she said.
“Just Food is going strong one year later,” she said.
The nonprofit’s ability to move forward in the past year, however, might not have been possible without the community’s support, Keever said.
On Oct. 6 Just Food will host its Founder’s Dinner at Abe & Jake's Landing, 8 E. Sixth St., Keever said. There the pantry will celebrate its seventh anniversary, thank the community and offer information about future plans.
“Without the community’s support there might not have been a seventh anniversary,” she said.
Just Food client Jennifer Coffman, 55, had stronger words about Farmer Wednesday after hearing about his guilty plea.
“If I didn’t have Just Food, I wouldn’t eat the last two weeks of the month,” she said. “He took food out of people's mouths. People who need it. People who would starve without it.”