'A different class of people'
When West Virginia legislators started to ask questions about the Wheels-to-Work program last month, Human Resource Development Foundation executives struck back.
At a public legislative committee meeting at the state Capitol, they passed out information about welfare recipients who complained to the Sunday Gazette-Mail about the vehicles they received from the Wheels program.
The sheets provided details about missed lease payments, and alleged that program participants mistreated cars. Legislators and audience members got copies.
State-funded agencies are supposed to obtain written permission when they release names and details about participants, according to state law.
"If you read the code literally, it seems they violated the section," said Robert Bastress, a law professor at West Virginia University. "If I were their lawyer, my advice would have been, 'don't do it.'"
Homer Kincaid, the foundation's executive director, said his agency was responding to newspaper reports.
"We weren't the ones who put their names on the street first," he said. "The Wheels program did a lot of good for a lot of people."
The people who ran the Wheels program, and some mechanics and used-car dealers have blamed welfare recipients for program shortcomings. They say participants had bad driving skills, poor attitudes and "trashed" the vehicles.
"The type of people you're dealing with, they're a different class of people," said Danny Turley, who owned a transmission service that fixed Wheels cars for the Foundation. "They're not working-class people."
The state reviewed the four nonprofits that ran Wheels-to-Work programs. None of the reports mention that welfare recipients mistreated vehicles.
The auditors never interviewed participants. No one tracked which cars were sent to the junkyard because of misuse and which were lemons.
"Some people abuse cars no matter what," said Charlie Chips, a Fairmont mechanic who worked on Wheels cars. "Some people took pride in what they had. Most of them were treated OK."
Caseworkers at the Department of Health and Human Resources were supposed to screen Wheels applicants. Welfare recipients also were required to take driving classes.
Still, hundreds of cars were sold for scrap or sent to the junkyard only a year or two after Wheels participants leased the cars, records show.
For instance, the foundation junked, or sold for less than $300 each, nearly a third of the cars it purchased, after paying about $2,300 per vehicle.
"When you look at these raw numbers, it doesn't pass the smell test," said Ruth Lemmon, executive vice president of the West Virginia Auto Dealers Association, who has reviewed Wheels purchasing documents.
The foundation reported that more than 168 of the 600 vehicles it leased were damaged in accidents. Program participants were faulted for 118 of the wrecks.
Kincaid said state officials encouraged agencies to buy cheap cars and required them to get special permission to buy cars for more than $3,000.
"You're talking about getting vehicles with a lot of miles on them and putting them through two years of abuse," he said.
Former foundation employees say some vehicles were bad from the start.
"I know we had some clients who abused cars," said Mark Gardner, who ran the foundation's Wheels program in Logan County for nearly two years. "But there were a lot of those cars we got, they were just bad cars from the get-go. There were cars that I wondered, 'Why did we buy this car?'"
To contact staff writers Eric Eyre and Scott Finn, use e-mail or call 348-4869.