The West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources has launched a statewide investigation into the $24 million Wheels-to-Work welfare car program and a new donated-car initiative that took its place.The inquiry has been given "high priority" and put on the "fast track" — although it's expected to last several months, according to those familiar with the review."There are going to be people brought in from all over," said DHHR spokesman John Law. "And they're going to be doing a lot of work and looking at a lot of documents."Those assigned to the investigation are targeting alleged fraud and mismanagement. They already have received complaints about alleged kickbacks, illegal expenditures and questionable car purchases and sales, DHHR employees said.The DHHR review includes an examination of a new $1 million donated-car contract awarded in October to Human Resource Development Foundation of Morgantown, an offshoot of the state AFL-CIO.At least four other state agencies also are investigating the welfare car programs: the Commission on Special Investigations, the Tax Department, the Legislative Auditor and the Department of Motor Vehicles.In November, the Sunday-Gazette Mail reported that nonprofit groups leased clunker cars to many low-income West Virginians while used-car dealers and mechanics reaped millions. Some agencies had questionable relationships with used-car dealers and garages.DHHR's comprehensive review signals a sharp departure from department officials' previous assertions about the Wheels-to-Work program.For months, they've lauded the program, which leased cars to about 2,900 welfare recipients so they could drive to work or job training programs.The department has assigned Assistant Attorney General Harry Bruner to lead the probe.Forensic accountants and welfare fraud investigators with the department's inspector-general division have joined the investigation. The West Virginia State Police also might assist.Auditors also are scrutinizing DHHR "monitoring reviews" of four nonprofits that ran Wheels programs over the past three years.Three of four programs received positive reports. But investigators will examine whether DHHR staff members overlooked program shortcomings and gave preferential treatment to some nonprofits.In recent weeks, Human Resource Development Foundation executives have complained to state officials that the ongoing investigations have hampered their plans to collect donated cars and give them to welfare recipients.On Dec. 4, Homer Kincaid, the organization's executive director, fired off a letter to the DHHR, calling for a quick end to the investigation.The foundation received a $1 million contract to run the donated-car program in November. The group also ran a Wheels-to-Work program over the past two years.The foundation had promised to put at least 60 vehicles in the hands of welfare recipients by the end of December, according to its grant application. By last week, the nonprofit had collected only six cars and hadn't given out a single vehicle, Kincaid said. The agency also hadn't obtained an auto dealer's license, which the grant required."Damage to the donated-vehicles program will continue or escalate as long as the Wheels-to-Work program investigation continues," Kincaid wrote to DHHR Commissioner Fred Boothe. "It is imperative this unfortunate situation is settled as quickly as possible."Kincaid said used-car dealers who had promised to donate cars to the agency are reneging on agreements. One dealer, for instance, had promised 15 cars but has "since decided they want no association with HRDF's program.""They don't want to be caught up in the line of fire," Kincaid said in a recent interview. "It's having an adverse effect on us getting a large volume of cars."Kincaid alleged that a subcontractor, Potomac Highlands Support Services of Petersburg, also hasn't been able to secure donated cars.He said the Grant County group "cannot afford to be involved with any program scrutinized by the Legislature," according to the letter, which the Sunday Gazette-Mail obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.The foundation switched the name of its donated-car program from "West Virginia Wheels" to "West Virginia Keys" in the wake of the investigation and negative publicity in the media, according to foundation employees.The group also has started its own internal investigation at the request of AFL-CIO President Jim Bowen. But organization leaders have found no wrongdoing among employees so far, Kincaid said."We're not hiding anything," Kincaid said. "If there was something done wrong, I want to know about it."In his letter, Kincaid also accused an unsuccessful grant applicant, Good News Mountaineer Garage, of waging a "sour-grapes crusade" against the foundation.Good News Mountaineer Garage of Charleston founded the first donated-car program in the state. Based on its success, West Virginia officials decided to scrap the Wheels lease program and switch to a donated program on Oct. 14.Good News competed for the new grant but lost by one point to Kincaid's group after a committee reviewed four proposals.Good News officials acknowledged that they were upset they didn't get the state grant, but they say they are not targeting the Foundation."We don't do investigations, and we're not after people," said John Chapman, a Good News board member. "This is tax money. Certainly the government has the right to investigate. I would hope somebody is watching our tax money."Frankly, I'm mystified why the state would decide to get out of the lease program because of high costs and give it to somebody who ran a lease program but has no experience with donated cars."In recent weeks, state legislators have pushed for changes to the new $1 million donated-car program, which ends in July.The Legislative Oversight Commission on Workforce Investment wants the Department of Health and Human Resources to include other state agencies, such as the Bureau of Employment Programs and the Department of Education, in any plans to provide transportation to welfare recipients.State Sen. John Unger, D-Jefferson, said that perhaps some welfare recipients should be given vouchers, instead of cars, to boost struggling public transportation systems in West Virginia counties.He also said adult-education job training programs across the state could make repairs on donated vehicles and are "starving for cars to work on.""These are the types of collaborations that could save the state a lot of money," Unger said, "and also put in place checks and balances."To contact staff writers Eric Eyre and Scott Finn, use e-mail or call 348-4869.
Tuesday in The Charleston Gazette: For the amount spent on the Wheels program, participants could have had new cars.