CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Longtime Agriculture Commissioner Gus Douglass was somewhat of a West Virginia legend. He held the elective post 44 years, repeatedly a revered figure on the statewide ballot. But ugly audits since his departure cast a sad pall over his career.
Trouble began when new Commissioner Walt Helmick refused to pay an $8,023 bill for Douglass's retirement party at Charleston's Embassy Suites. The state Ethics Commission had forbidden the party, but the Agriculture Department held it anyway.
Helmick requested an audit of his agency -- and results seem to show a pattern of slipshod bureaucracy and dubious self-dealing.
A preliminary audit last month found the agency had made $4 million in questionable loans with federal funds. Senate President Jeff Kessler said: "We've got some kind of a rogue loan program without any sort of rules, regulations or oversight." House Speaker Tim Miley called it a "friends-and-family loan program" and added: "False documents appear to have been submitted inappropriately." Together, they requested an FBI investigation.
Now an updated audit makes findings like these:
* The commissioner's son got a $45,000 loan and $18,500 refinancing. The Ethics Commission approved the loan, on grounds that Douglass himself wasn't on the loan committee -- but the panel consisted of four of his employees chosen by him.
* Two other department employees got loans -- one a $146,000 sum to buy land valued at $120,000.
* Douglass obtained nearly $4,000 reimbursements for campsites at the State Fair -- but the audit says the sites were provided free.
* Department counsel Arden Curry was paid a full-time salary for 21 years -- for example, $64,960 for an 18-month period -- yet he worked for the agency only 200 to 250 hours per year, and maintained a Charleston law practice.
* Douglass spent $3,150 for an "extravagant" plane flight and improperly collected nearly $2,000 for 21 stays in Charleston hotels.
* Department employees exaggerated their mileage claims by about 8,000 miles, collecting $4,000 excessively from taxpayers.
The audit says the findings imply an "appearance of an unethical tone of upper management."
We're glad the FBI and U.S. attorney's office are examining this shabby situation.