CHARLESTON, W.Va. — West Virginia Agriculture Commissioner Walt Helmick told a group of state lawmakers Monday he would like to keep a $5 million revolving loan program in his office despite the controversy now surrounding it.
Legislative auditors uncovered the lack of controls regarding the program in a recent audit of the agriculture department requested by Helmick when he took office a year ago. The loan program was just one of several red flags auditors found.
Monday’s discussion focused mostly on the loan program that was started by the federal government in cooperation with the state Department of Agriculture in the 1930s following the Great Depression. The loans were to help farmers.
Auditors said at some point in the 1960s the program was turned over to the state and since then a higher percentage of the loans have gone delinquent. A four-person committee in the department, under the administration of longtime state Agriculture Commissioner Gus Douglass, oversaw the program in recent years. Auditors said there were no loan experts on the committee.
“Of the 40 loans where they didn’t comply with the federal requirements well over 50 percent of those loans were delinquent,” Legislative Auditor Aaron Allred said Monday.
The program currently has $1 million in the bank and $4 million outstanding. Commissioner Helmick said he would like to keep the program, with a number changes, in place. He said an expert would be put in charge.
“Somebody that is trained in this particular area, to handle loans, especially if we are going to expand this program,” he said. “Basically, what we’re going to do is create a new program anyway.”
It appears legislative involvement over the years has been the annual approval of the special revenue account for the program in state code. State Senate President Jeff Kessler said it doesn’t appear the legislature allocated money for the loan program.
Kessler and House of Delegates Speaker Tim Miley have asked the results of the audit be turned over to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for review. They are concerned about other things that turned up in connection with reimbursements and expenditures under the Douglass administration.
Former Commissioner Douglass told MetroNews last week he was unaware of anything abnormal in his department.