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State AFL-CIO leader defends Wheels to Work

The president of the state AFL-CIO defended a program to lease cars to welfare recipients Sunday, while promising to investigate alleged wrongdoing within the program.

"Was everything perfect? Probably not, but nothing is perfect," Jim Bowen told legislators at interim meetings. "Have we worked hard to make it better? Yes."

A nonprofit offshoot of Bowen's labor group, Human Resources Development Foundation, was one of four agencies that spent $23.7 million in federal welfare money to lease cars to welfare recipients over the past three years.

But many of the cars they sold were clunkers, according to 48 complaints received by state officials and The Charleston Gazette.

Human Resources Development Foundation severed ties last week with a Salt Rock auto dealer, Kenneth Parsons, who had no dealer's license, paid no workers' compensation, and had been arrested recently for possession of a stolen vehicle. Parsons sold the agency at least $130,000 worth of cars, did repairs and repossessed more than 100 cars.

Parsons said he was good friends with Larry Richards, who ran the Wheels to Work program for Human Resources Development Foundation in Southern West Virginia.

The state Commission on Special Investigations and the legislative auditor are investigating the program.

State officials quietly decided to scrap the lease program last summer. They replaced it with a new donated-vehicle program, and recently awarded a $1 million contract to Human Resources Development Foundation to run it.

Many of the same people who ran the former leasing program are also in charge of the new donated-car program.

After the meeting, Bowen promised to look into the purchasing practices within the program, and "take whatever action is necessary."

Bowen did not discuss Parsons or the ongoing investigations with legislators. He said state officials, not reporters, should investigate allegations of wrongdoing.

"I ask our friends in the media to allow the state to conduct [the investigation], then discuss it," he said.

Bowen focused on the leasing program's successes. For example, about 60 percent of all participants made their lease payments and were able to keep their cars, he said.

About a third of all cars the program bought were junked or sold for an average of $300 within two years. But the average car was bought for only $2,300, and some program participants didn't take care of their cars, he said.

"There is success and there is failure in this program," Bowen said. "I believe we have done the best we could with what we had."

To contact staff writers Scott Finn and Eric Eyre, use e-mail or call 357-4323 or 348-4869.


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