Lawmakers voted Monday to audit and investigate the West Virginia Wheels-to-Work program.
The program spent $24 million over three years to lease cars to welfare recipients so they could work or go to school. But during interim meetings Monday, several legislators questioned whether the money was spent wisely.
House Education Chairman Jerry Mezzatesta, D-Hampshire, proposed the legislative investigation and audit during a meeting of the Commission on Workforce Investment for Economic Development.
Committee chairman Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley, promised to keep a "very intimate relationship" with state officials who run the program until his questions are answered.
"In Dante's hell, there's a special place for those who steal from the poor," Unger said. "If we're stealing from the poor, we need to resolve it and stop it."
Four agencies ran the Wheels program for the state. They bought used cars from dealers and paid for insurance and repairs, while program participants paid for the car in 24 monthly installments.
More than a dozen program participants have said the program gave them unsafe cars. Seat belts didn't latch, steering wheels fell into laps, and mufflers fell off cars.
A Southern West Virginia woman leased seven cars before she got one she could drive, according to a previous state audit.
Another woman's engine caught on fire on the way home from the mechanic.
Also, officials at two agencies set up deals with used-car dealers who sold, repaired and towed the same cars, giving them an incentive to sell lemons.
For more than an hour Monday, legislators grilled Fred Boothe, the Department of Health and Human Resources official responsible for the program.
Boothe said that all the cars went through a safety check and had to pass state inspection. He blamed some of the car problems on program participants.
"If you go up a holler and drag off a muffler," it's not the program's fault, he said.
"Are there going to be problems with maintenance over two years? Sure," he said. "We tend to buy the least expensive car that is roadworthy."
Boothe said the program had 3,036 participants, all of whom were placed in employment or training. About one of every four cars was repossessed.
Delegate Samuel Cann, D-Harrison, asked how many participants were able to keep their jobs. Booth said he didn't have that information, but local welfare workers keep track of each participant.
"We ought to quit the whole program if we don't know if it works," Cann said. "We want to see it be successful — we just want to know how many stay on the job."