"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.