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'Troubling activities' found in W.Va. Agriculture Dept.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Legislative leaders have turned over evidence of "very troubling activities and management practices" under the West Virginia Department of Agriculture's previous administration to the U.S. Attorney's Office, the House speaker's office announced Thursday.

In a statement, Speaker Tim Miley, D-Harrison, announced that a preliminary legislative audit of finances within the department under then-Commissioner Gus Douglass found evidence of suspicious activity.

"Upon being elected to the office of Agriculture Commissioner, Walt Helmick requested the legislative auditor to perform an audit of the department," Miley stated. "That is a pretty standard request, as it gives a newly elected office holder a perspective from which to begin operating and managing the agency.

"To date, the audit has revealed very troubling activities and management practices by the Agriculture Department's previous administration, including questionable accounting methods, expense reimbursements and loans administered by the agency," Miley stated.

Miley said that once the preliminary audit was brought to the attention of himself and Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, "We ordered our legislative auditor to immediately turn the information over to the U.S. Attorney's office. Commissioner Helmick supported our decision 100 percent."

Helmick was traveling in the Eastern Panhandle Thursday, but issued a statement saying the department will do whatever is needed to assist in the investigation.

"Upon being sworn into office as Agriculture commissioner last January, one of my first official acts was to request an audit of the agency," Helmick said. "We have recently been made aware that some accounting and management practices from the previous administration have been called into question and that Senate President Jeff Kessler and House Speaker Tim Miley have requested that those findings be turned over to the U.S. Attorney."

Department spokesman Butch Antolini said the agency has not been apprised of what issues were raised in the legislative audit.

"We actually have not had the exit interview with the legislative auditors yet," he said Thursday. "On our end, we're going to do whatever needs to be done to see the law is followed, and our citizens are protected."

Legislative auditor Aaron Allred said he would not comment on the matter, except to say that Helmick had sent a letter requesting the audit on his first day in office, Jan. 9, 2013.

Allred said it is possible that issues with the department's loan program will be discussed Monday, at the legislative Post-Audits Committee meeting.

The department oversees a $4.5 million program for agri-business loans.

A legislative audit of all state agency loan programs conducted in 2008 indicated that the department had issued 69 loans totaling $4.018 million, with amounts due of $2.4 million and total interest payments of $1.227 million.

The audit did not otherwise address the Agriculture loans.

"Neither President Kessler, Commissioner Helmick, nor I tolerate any activities that lack integrity or violate the public trust," Miley said in the statement. "We will continue to provide law enforcement with any information necessary to assist in its investigation. Meanwhile, as we await completion of the audit, President Kessler and I will be working with Commissioner Helmick to facilitate any legislative changes necessary to ensure greater accountability and to tighten statutory controls over the activities identified in the audit."

Reach Phil Kabler at philk@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1220.


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