Junked cars, lost jobs
Most of the seat belts in Michelle Clere's 1989 Chevy Astro van don't work.
They slide uselessly within their casing, without the satisfying "catch" that means you're locked in and secure.
That's just the beginning of the Astro's problems. The turn signal is broken. The steering wheel wobbles. Rust holes are large enough to stick a hand through.
Clere, a West Hamlin welfare recipient, leased the vehicle through a program called Wheels-to-Work. Two years ago, her success story was featured in newspaper articles.
But her unreliable van couldn't get her to work. She lost two jobs and had to drop out of a training program. Now, she has less than a year before the state terminates her welfare benefits for good.
"I don't know what I'm going to do. I'm scared," Clere said.
In July, state Department of Health and Human Resources officials quietly decided to scrap the $8 million-a-year Wheels-to-Work program, which officially ends Dec. 31.
They tout a new "donated-car model" in which a single nonprofit organization will take donated cars and give them to welfare recipients.
Last week, the department awarded a $1 million contract to Morgantown-based Human Resources Development Foundation, an offshoot of the AFL-CIO, to run the donated-vehicle program for the next seven months.
It's the same group that sold Clere her van.
During the past three years, nonprofit groups across the state spent $23.8 million in federal welfare money on Wheels-to-Work.
Nearly 2,900 welfare recipients were promised dependable cars so they could get to work or training programs and get off welfare.
But Clere and at least three other former clients of Human Resources Development Foundation complain bitterly about cars that repeatedly broke down and staff members who wouldn't help them.
Records show the Human Resources Development Foundation bought dozens of cars within the last two years for about $2,300 each, but recently sold them back to used-car dealers for an average of $450.
The nonprofit agency also repossessed more than one of every three cars it leased, the worst record of any of the four agencies running the Wheels program, according to a state report.
Jimmy Belcher and his family came face to face with the "repo man" a year ago, the night before Thanksgiving.
They had just returned to their Logan County home from the supermarket with a turkey and fixings. Four "big guys" blocked the family in their driveway and seized the car.
"We barely got the groceries out," said Belcher's wife, Demeta. "They said they were taking the car — 'get out of the way.'"
The Belchers said they were one lease payment behind. Their car also had problems, including a muffler that fell off in the middle of dangerous W.Va. 10.
Last week, officials with the Human Resources Development Foundation vigorously defended their Wheels program. They said they sold quality vehicles, which had to pass inspection before they were sold. Also, program participants sometimes missed repair shop appointments.
The Human Resources Development Foundation received about $4.4 million in federal money for its Wheels program. The agency operated lease programs in about a dozen central West Virginia counties, including Kanawha.
"If [a problem] was reported to us, we did everything we could do to get the vehicles repaired," said Sharon Paterno, the agency's regional manager and former state Department of Health and Human Resources official who helped to create Wheels-to-Work. "We did not make a practice of ignoring customers."
Rewarded for problems
The state Department of Health and Human Resources didn't start to audit the four agencies that administered Wheels programs across the state until last summer, about two years after the lease program started.
In November 2002, the Department completed a report that found questionable spending and management at a Mercer County nonprofit group, the first Wheels program reviewed.
The state ordered Community Action of South Eastern West Virginia (CASE) to stop doing business with a used-car dealer who made nearly $1 million in Wheels business in a year.
In May, department officers audited the Human Resources Development Foundation's Wheels program, the last program reviewed.
But the state agency didn't conclude its review until last week, after the Gazette asked questions and requested a copy of the monitoring report. The program already had been awarded a new grant.
In completing its reviews, state officials failed to talk to even one participant in the Wheels program. Instead, they interviewed their own caseworkers and program staff.
Paterno said the report proves her agency ran a good program. It found only three "material findings," or major problems, compared to 17 at CASE.
"The department seems happy with our administration," Paterno said.
According to that report, however, the Human Resources Development Foundation did some of the same things that got CASE in trouble. State officials just didn't cite the group for those problems.
The report says the Human Resources Development Foundation provided reliable vehicles and purchased cars "at prices near wholesale value," unlike CASE, which bought used cars at retail prices.
But like CASE, the Human Resources Development Foundation bought most of its cars from one dealer, Capitol City Auto, instead of spreading the business around.
"We went other places as well, but we got better cars there," Paterno said.
The agency also purchased 13 cars from its own fleet, and two from its own employees, according to the report.
CASE's review said it "must expand its purchasing base," but the Human Resource Development Foundation's audit made no similar statement.
State officials chastised CASE for how it disposed of program cars. "Vehicles should not be bundled up and sold at scrap prices. Each vehicle should be sold based on true appraised value," the report said.
The report for the Human Resources Development Foundation makes no mention of how that agency bundles cars to be sold. Last year, it sold one lot of 40 cars for $112 each, and another group of 35 cars for $300 each, according to agency reports.
Altogether, the nonprofit sold 103 cars for a total of about $46,000 — about $450 per car. But within the last two years, it bought those same cars for more than five times as much — $238,000, about $2,300 per car.
CASE was cited for having a "questionable" relationship with one Bluefield used-car dealer. That dealer sold cars to the program, and towed cars and repaired them when they broke down. The same dealer often bought the cars back for a fraction of their original cost.
The Human Resources Development Foundation had a similar relationship with K&K Auto in Salt Rock, but state officials failed to mention that in their report.
The program bought at least 47 cars from K&K Auto, according to the state records. Kenneth Parsons, who owns the used-car lot and garage, said he has bought 160 cars from the agency to resell.
"We had no special arrangement with Mr. Parsons," Paterno said. "He was a garage that many participants chose to take their car to. He was often the low bidder. As far as the repos were concerned, he did the work cheaper than other individuals."
On a recent weekday, 35 cars sat on a lot behind K&K Auto. Some had stickers saying "Property of HRDF" on the windshield. A van had a sticker above the steering wheel that said, "If this car is towed, call the Wheels-to-Work program."
A Mitsubishi Summit had a children's toy truck, plastic fish and bubble-blowing solution on the front seat. The vehicle's title lay on the car floor, signed by Human Resources Development Foundation director Homer Kincaid.
A week before, Parsons said he has sold ex-Wheels cars for $1,000 to $2,000. "You take losses on the bad, and fix up the ones that are decent. You take your chances," he said.
Parsons also said he repossessed cars for the agency — more than 100 in the last year. He sometimes sells the cars he repossesses, after he cleans them up.
"Some of them," Parsons said, "they're pretty nice cars."
Praying for the best
Michelle Clere's Astro van has no spare tire. Never did, she said. The window crank is missing. The van's heater is attached with duct tape.
Clere took her van to K&K Auto repeatedly for repairs, but it kept breaking down. So she began taking the car to another local repair shop. The van ran better, she said.
Clere acknowledges that her driving record isn't spotless.
Last year, she lost the first Wheels vehicle she received, a 1994 Plymouth Grand Voyager van, in an accident, just weeks after she got it.
Clere was driving with her two youngest daughters in back. She said two motorcycles weaving in front of her distracted her as she drove down Montrose Drive in South Charleston. Still, she remembers trying to brake at the bottom of the hill.
She ran the red light and was struck broadside by another car, according to the accident report. The van rolled and threw her 5-year-old daughter through the back window.
The next thing Clere remembers, firefighters were cutting her out of the van. She watched paramedics care for her daughter, who was lying on the pavement outside. Her face was broken in four places, her head fractured, leg broken, spleen lacerated.
In time, the girl made a full recovery. But because Clere was found to be at fault, she was ordered to pay off her van's lease over the next two years.
She did, out of her welfare check.
Meantime, she lost her job and needed another vehicle, a cheaper one, so she could make the new payment on top of the old — the 1989 Astro.
She says she'd like to drive the van off a cliff. Instead, when she has to drive her children somewhere, she buckles them in the broken seat belts and prays nothing happens.
"It's not right, you know?" Clere said. "I worry about my kids. But what can I do?"
To contact staff writer Scott Finn, use e-mail or call 357-4323.