CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The state’s new Agriculture Commissioner says the state’s former Agriculture Commissioner has some explaining to do when it comes to problems found in a legislative audit.
“All elected officials should be held accountable,” said Commissioner Walt Helmick on Tuesday’s MetroNews “Talkline.” “Whether it be the former commissioner, myself, or anybody else, we have to operate at a (certain) level, but we understand that when you put your name on the ballot, all of us.”
A completed report from legislative auditors, which was released publicly earlier this week, found conflicts of interest in a loan program run through the Agriculture Department; alleged falsification of expense accounts under former Commissioner Gus Douglass, who served for eleven terms; and a generally “unethical tone” from upper management.
The audit, which Helmick requested when he took over, focused on a time period from July 2011 through Dec. 2012 when Douglass was in charge.
“Regardless of what office you’re pursuing, you should have an audit to bring things up to date so you don’t cloud the future of that agency,” said Helmick of the audit request.
One of the main problem areas identified in the audit was the Rural Rehabilitation Loan Program. Through it, loans were made, the auditors said, without sufficient appraisal and collateral and, in some cases, were not used for agriculture purposes. Potential conflicts of interest were also identified.
Despite those issues, Helmick said he does not think the loan program should be completely eliminated.
“We see a significant opportunity in West Virginia because we are consuming over $7 billion worth of food. We’re growing less than $1 billion. We want to have that loan program in place to help those non-traditional growers,” he said.
“We will put people, I will put some people in the role of making sure that these situations do not occur again.”
The audit also found irregularities with travel expense reimbursements, hospitality expenditures that were out of compliance 90 percent of the time, along with issues of mileage payments and leasing programs. In one case, the audit said the submitted receipt for a campsite at the State Fair appeared to be faked.
Earlier this year, after seeing the preliminary audit report, Senate President Jeff Kessler (D-Marshall, 2) and House Speaker Tim Miley (D-Harrison, 48) forwarded it to the U.S. Attorney for an investigation into possible criminal activity.
Tuesday’s MetroNews “Talkline” originated from the State Capitol where the 2014 Regular Legislative Session continues through Saturday, March 8.