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Mess: Agriculture loans

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Did something corrupt happen in the Rural Rehabilitation Loan program administered by the state Agriculture Department -- or was it just bureaucratic bungling?

We're glad that the FBI and U.S. attorney's office are seeking public answers to this disturbing question.

After Walt Helmick was elected agriculture commissioner, he requested a routine audit of the agency's programs. Examiners found a mess in a federally funded loan operation. House Speaker Tim Miley and Senate President Jeff Kessler asked federal agents to launch a criminal investigation.

"We've got some kind of a rogue loan program without any sort of rules, regulations or oversight," Kessler commented Monday.

In a radio interview, Miley called it a "friends and family loan program" and added: "False documents appear to have been submitted inappropriately."

Legislative Auditor Aaron Allred said the program got $5 million in U.S. funds and made about $4 million in loans. The operation was supposed to help farmers buy land and equipment -- but nearly half of the money went to restaurants, wholesalers and food firms.

Collateral was skimpy. One $149,000 loan was secured by just two acres of land worth $15,700. Another $15,000 loan was backed by a truck and camper valued at $6,200.

Former Commissioner Gus Douglass contends that his staff did nothing wrong.

It's reassuring that federal agents will determine whether he's correct.


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