Paul Nusbaum says he was shocked when he first discovered how much West Virginia was spending on its Wheels-to-Work welfare car program.
Nusbaum, the state's secretary of Health and Human Resources, learned at a June 2001 meeting that West Virginia was shelling out millions in federal welfare money to lease used cars to welfare recipients.
He pulled out his calculator to figure out how much the state spent on every person who received a car.
"I said, 'Wait a minute. This is crazy. Look what we're spending per car,'" Nusbaum recalled last week during an interview with the Sunday Gazette-Mail. "At that meeting, I said the program had to change."
Two years passed before the state quietly ditched the car-leasing program for a new initiative that takes donated cars and gives them to low-income West Virginians.
In the meantime, used-car dealers made millions selling cars to the Wheels program. Many of the vehicles broke down, forcing some welfare recipients to quit jobs, according to former program participants and Wheels employees.
"There were lots of clunkers people ended up with," Nusbaum acknowledged Tuesday on "Talkline," the state's largest call-in radio show.
The final price tag for the three-year Wheels program: about $24 million.
Overall, West Virginia Wheels cost at least twice as much as similar programs in other states.
The state spent about $10,700 for every person that ended up with a car. That's enough to buy a new Hyundai Accent, Chevrolet Aveo or Toyota Echo. Instead, they received used cars worth an average of $2,300.
"I'm the one who changed the whole program," Nusbaum said. "I'm not surprised by any of the numbers."
In November, the Sunday Gazette-Mail published articles about the troubled Wheels program, which provided used cars to welfare recipients to travel to jobs or training.
Since then, five state agencies have started investigations.
The agencies also are examining a new $1 million donated-car contract awarded in October to Human Resource Development Foundation of Morgantown, an offshoot of the state AFL-CIO and one of four nonprofit groups that ran Wheels programs.
Nusbaum said negative publicity surrounding the lease program has hindered the new donated-car program, and possibly the ongoing investigations.
"I would rather this investigation take place in private and not in the newspapers, because that gives people a chance to hide things," he said.
At the same time, Nusbaum said he welcomes the inquiries and press scrutiny.
"Sunshine cures everything," he said. "This will make us better."
In interviews about the Wheels-to-Work program, Nusbaum repeats the same mantra: We knew about these problems all along and tried to fix them.
"There wasn't anything in there we didn't know already," he said of the newspaper reports.
Agency officials handled problems internally. They issued "corrective-action plans." They gave nonprofit groups numerous chances to change improper practices. But the problems were never reported beyond the DHHR's Charleston offices, even when some staff members suspected illegal activities.
Internal DHHR documents show that the agency became aware of problems with the Wheels program nearly two years ago.
A June 2002 letter by a DHHR manager to other agency officials stated that some mechanics were overcharging for vehicle repairs paid by the program.
Two nonprofits running Wheels programs, Community Resources Inc. of Parkersburg and Bluefield-based Community Action of South Eastern West Virginia, asked for extra money.
The state paid the groups hundreds of thousands of dollars to finish the year, and awarded them multimillion-dollar contracts the next year.