Ex-Lawrence mayor gets 10 months for embezzling from charity; must pay $81,000 in restitution

Former Lawrence mayor Jeremy Farmer briefly leaves the Robert J. Dole Federal Courthouse before returning for his sentencing on Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2017 in Kansas City, Kan.

KANSAS CITY, KAN. — Former Lawrence mayor Jeremy Farmer was sentenced Tuesday to 10 months in federal prison for stealing money from a food bank he once led. He was also ordered to pay more than $81,000 in restitution and faces two years of supervised release after his prison term.

At his sentencing hearing in U.S. District Court in Kansas City, Kan., Farmer told Judge Carlos Murguia that he was sorry for his actions.

“I can’t express how deeply sorry I am for my irresponsible, reckless, selfish behavior when I was employed at Just Food,” Farmer said. “I feel terrible, and I do every day.”

In handing down the sentence, Murguia noted that Farmer had lined his own pockets with the nonprofit food pantry’s money.

“This money was used for personal benefit,” Murguia said. “The court does believe that is something significant.”

The judge also took into consideration that at the time Farmer was stealing from the food pantry he was acting in what should have been trusted leadership roles in the community — as the mayor of Lawrence and as the executive director of the nonprofit.

No one from Just Food spoke at Tuesday’s sentencing; however, Will Katz, a former president of Just Food’s board of directors, spoke with the Journal-World at the courthouse.

“I don’t think anybody at Just Food is going to be jumping up and down and cheering. I think everybody just views it as the legal process has finally played out,” Katz said.

Katz said he thought the restitution order was appropriate but repayment would be a long process. He said the board had been and would continue to be focused on moving forward on its own to recover from the financial loss Farmer had caused.

The organization, Katz said, has done a “miraculous job of shoring up the finances … the community has stepped up in a massive way.”

Farmer was not taken to prison immediately after the hearing but was ordered to turn himself in once the corrections facility and in-take time had been determined by the court.

Farmer’s attorney, John Cowles, told the court Tuesday that Farmer was prepared to pay $1,000 that day toward the amount he would owe, “as a way of signifying his dedication toward paying restitution in this case.”

Farmer, 33, was charged in August 2016 and pleaded guilty the following month to interstate transportation of embezzled funds and securities, a felony, according to his plea agreement.

Farmer admitted to embezzling by fraud more than $5,000 from Just Food from 2013 until he resigned in August 2015, and concealing it by “adjusting” QuickBooks entries and financial statements provided to the Just Food board.

Farmer’s attorney had requested a variance from sentencing guidelines for his crime, asking for probation instead of prison. Cowles cited Farmer’s cooperation with law enforcement, his guilty plea, his lack of criminal record, his good behavior while on pretrial release and his maintenance of a steady job to earn money toward paying restitution in the case.

Prosecutors argued that Farmer deserved prison time in addition to a hefty restitution payment.

“That he was a public figure, the mayor of Lawrence at the time he committed his crime, coupled with the fact that his crime was committed against a charitable institution warrants a sentence of imprisonment,” according to a response filed by Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Hathaway. “A sentence of no incarceration would fail to take into account punishment and deterrence. The government recommends, as it agreed to do, a sentence of 10 months in prison, no fine and restitution in the amount of $81,446.57.”

By signing the plea agreement, Farmer already received a reduction in his sentencing range for accepting responsibility plus “substantial benefit by not having the stigma of being indicted,” Hathaway wrote.

Farmer was hired as executive director of Just Food in 2011. Voters elected Farmer to the Lawrence City Commission in April 2013, and fellow commissioners unanimously voted him to become mayor of Lawrence in April 2015.

Farmer resigned from Just Food on Aug. 10, 2015, and also resigned as the city’s mayor days later.

A month later, representatives of the Just Food board alleged that an examination of their financial records showed Farmer made unauthorized payments to himself of more than $52,000 in salary and benefits over a two-year period. The alleged overpayments were in addition to more than $61,000 in federal and state payroll taxes that went unpaid while Farmer served as the executive director, Just Food said.