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'Troubling' findings from Agriculture Department turned over to feds

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

In a statement Thursday morning, Miley, D-Harrison, announced that a preliminary legislative audit of finances within the department under former 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 said. "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."

Legislative Auditor Aaron Allred said he could 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 issues with the department's loan program may be discussed Monday, at the legislative Post-Audits Committee meeting.

"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."

Except for a break following a failed run for governor in 1984, Douglass had been the state's agriculture commissioner since 1964 until he decided not to run for re-election in 2012.

"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 in a news release. "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."

"We support that decision 100 percent and the Agriculture Department will do whatever is needed to assist in this investigation," Helmick said in the news release.

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


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