BRIDGEPORT, W. Va. – The Legislative Post Audits Subcommittee received the findings from the state Legislative Auditor Post Audit Division from investigation into former Commissioner of Agriculture Commissioner Gus Douglass’ administration on Tuesday.
In February, a legislative audit was released showing the state Department of Agriculture had significant internal control weaknesses and noncompliance in areas of high risk in both revenues and expenditures within the agency from July 1, 2011 through December 31, 2012.
The audit was originally sought by current Commissioner Walt Helmick and the focus was primarily on the Rural Rehabilitation Loan Program. However, it became apparent to the Post Audit Division further investigation was necessary.
“During our previous audit, we uncovered some things that, as the media has reported, have been turned over to federal investigators,” Kristina Taylor, Senior Auditor with the Legislative Post Audit said. “So, for that reason, we decided to look further into their travel to see if there were other issues that could be reported.”
The objectives of the investigation into the travel of the former administration were to determine if the former amounts paid on state-issued credit cards were in compliance with state policy and if reimbursements were handled properly, among others.
According to Taylor, the research did uncover some instances of noncompliance with applicable laws.
“We had, I think, 12 findings specifically related to travel,” she said.
One of the incidents involves the retirement party for the former commissioner held in Charleston.
The WVDA paid $282 and $258 for the former commissioner and former assistant commissioner to stay two night at a hotel for the celebration.
This violates state code, WVDA Travel Policy and the West Virginia Ethics Commission Guideline for Retirement Gifts and Events, which reads “…Absent specific legislative authority, public funds may not be used to underwrite rental or related fees associated with an event which is held at an off-site location.”
The report indicates actions such as these lead to the appearance of an unethical tone, where employees were led to believe they could not question the expenses and nothing would be done even if they were questioned.
The post audit also found instances of excessive travel reimbursements to members of the former administration.
For example, there were 149 instances –29 percent of all trips– where the former assistant commissioner claimed a mileage amount in excess of the recalculated distance, the smallest difference in one trip being 12 miles while the largest difference was 204. When rounded to the nearest dollar, this equates to a difference of $3,347.
After the meeting, Senate President and Legislative Post Audits Subcommittee Chair Jeff Kessler said with the lack of efficient management, the situation could have been worse. Also, when it came to other findings such as double reimbursements, he wanted to reserve judgement until further investigation.
“It doesn’t appear like there’s an enormous amount of money involved, hundreds of dollars rather than thousands of dollars or tens of thousands of dollars,” he said. “That’s been turned over to the appropriate authorities for them to take a closer look at. So, I’ll defer to whatever action they think whether it was intentional or just sloppy book keeping.”
The post audit also looked into the former administration’s distribution of grant money, finding inappropriate actions in their dealings with the Inwood Farmers Market and the Mountaineer Food Bank.
The report also included recommendations including the former administration reimburse the state for most excess or inappropriate expenses and also suggestions to the current WVDA Administration on how to prevent similar situations from happening in the future.
The department said they will work with the Post Audit Division and be proactive in taking proper measures.
“We found a large part of their recommendations to be helpful,” Chris Ferro, WVDA Chief of Staff said. “We’ve implemented some of the recommendations prior to the audit coming out and plan to implement a large part of the other recommendations moving forward.”
The federal investigation into the former administration is ongoing.