Edith Holbrook was driving home from the repair shop when her car's engine erupted in flames.
"I'm going to blow up with this car right now if I don't stop," Holbrook remembered thinking to herself one night last May. "I thought I was going to die."
Holbrook stopped on a curve along Coal River Road and ran from the car. Firefighters doused the blaze. The car was towed to the junkyard.
Holbrook, a former welfare recipient, leased the 1993 Toyota Tercel for $2,000 through the state's Wheels-to-Work program. After two years, she would own the car.
The car had broken down four times before, but she needed it to drive from her Lincoln County home to her job at a South Hills convenience store. She had paid $1,800 on the lease before the fire.
A month later, Holbrook received a note in the mail: "Dear Client: We regret to inform you, your lease-to-own agreement will be terminated." The letter said she abused the car and neglected maintenance.
Without a car, Holbrook had to quit her job. Instead of making her life easier, she said the program gave her a dangerous car, then blamed her when the engine burned up.
"It was hell," she said.
Holbrook wasn't the only low-income West Virginian taken for a ride by the welfare car program.
For the past three years, nonprofit groups have sold clunker cars to welfare recipients while used-car dealers made millions on sales and repairs, records show.
The agencies bought the cars with $23 million in federal welfare money administered by the state Department of Health and Human Resources.
The state's poorest citizens received cars with seat belts that didn't latch, mufflers that dropped off and steering wheels that fell into their laps.
A Southern West Virginia woman complained that she leased seven cars before she got one she could drive. One of the cars caught fire in her driveway.
"It's an outrage a program like this went in the direction it did," said Delegate Mike Hall, R-Putnam, who sits on the Health and Human Resources oversight committee. "It was an idea that sounded good, but the devil is in the details."
State officials promised welfare recipients safe, reliable cars so they could get to work or job-training programs, and get off welfare.
Wheels participants signed two-year leases, paid off in monthly installments. The state paid for liability insurance and major repairs, a big expense for the program.
"They gave me a piece of crap," said Michelle Clere of West Hamlin, who leased a Chevy Astro van through the Wheels program. "For me, it screwed me more than it helped me. Every time I would get a good job or go to school, my van would break down, and I'd lose my job."
Some agencies delivered, however. They ran clean programs. They cite success stories about people who turned their lives around.
About 2,900 welfare recipients got cars.
"We couldn't provide everybody with a Volvo, but we tried to make sure they got adequate, dependable cars," said Fred Boothe, commissioner of the state's Bureau of Children and Families. "Overall, we put a lot of people to work. It's been very successful."
But a Sunday Gazette-Mail review of state records and interviews with Wheels participants, used-car dealers, social-service workers, and former and current agency officials who run Wheels programs found:
Nathan Belcher, who owns Belcher's Auto Sales in Bluefield, received nearly $1 million from the Wheels program.
Belcher said he worked 14-hour days, seven days a week buying and selling and repairing cars for nonprofit Community Action of South Eastern West Virginia, better known as CASE. He provided many services for free, he said. And he said he even loaned the agency $250,000 so it could buy cars and meet its yearly state quota.
The group severed ties with Belcher last December after a state review raised questions about the relationship.
"I was never appreciated, and they dumped me like they dumped me," Belcher said last week. "I should have charged them another $200,000."
"We felt the program
CASE wrote the blueprint for car-lease programs for welfare recipients.
The nonprofit received a $4,000 grant from the state to write a 50-page booklet, which established guidelines for lease-to-own programs. CASE's executive director, Oraetta Kennedy Hubbard, called herself the "Mom" of the Wheels-to-Work program in a grant proposal.
So it wasn't surprising that the state selected CASE as one of four agencies to supervise Wheels programs across the state. The group's territory included 12 counties, stretching from McDowell to Webster counties.
But like other community agencies responsible for Wheels programs, CASE stumbled at the start.
Overnight, Wheels became the agency's most costly program, at more than $2 million a year. The organization had "cash flow" problems, and said the DHHR did not provide grant money on time. It fell behind on paying vendors.
CASE needed to purchase 500 cars by the end of the fiscal year to satisfy its state contract.
Belcher was happy to help.
He owned the dealership and a repair shop. He'd been selling cars in Mercer County since 1957. And he knew Tommy Carroll, a CASE employee responsible for buying and selling welfare cars.
"We hadn't bought all the cars, so we had to show DHHR we bought them," Carroll said. "Nathan saw there was a possibility of making a little bit of money. Nobody wanted to put up the money like he did."
Belcher said he loaned $250,000 to CASE to buy cars. CASE officials dispute Belcher's recollection. They said it wasn't a loan; rather, they ordered and received the cars, but didn't pay him on time.
CASE bought cars from Belcher, stored cars on Belcher's lot, sent clients' cars for repairs to Belcher's garage, called on Belcher to tow cars throughout Southern West Virginia and sold vehicles back to Belcher.
Business was good — for a year.
Someone complained to the governor's office, and the DHHR sent a team to investigate. Months later, they issued a report that found: