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Did Gus Douglass abuse public office?

HOUSE of Delegates Speaker Tim Miley dropped a bombshell on MetroNews TalkLine last week, revealing that a legislative audit has turned up potential financial wrongdoing in the state Agriculture Department under former Commissioner Gus Douglass.

"There are some expense issues and accounting issues that appear to be suspicious," Miley said. "False documents appear to have been submitted inappropriately and reimbursements made for those false expense vouchers."

Miley said the information has been turned over to the U.S. Attorney's Office, which is investigating the allegations.

The audit hasn't been released yet, and Miley was short on specifics, but he added that one issue centered on what he derisively called a "friends and family loan program." Miley could be talking about how Douglass' department handled the Rural Rehabilitation Loan program.

"It appears to have very little, if any, policies and procedures that have been followed in awarding these loans," Miley said. "Senate President (Jeff) Kessler and I are willing to work with (current Agriculture Commissioner Walt) Helmick about addressing that loan program and either eliminating it or tightening the controls."

Who keeps track of these loans? What kind of due diligence is done to determine who qualifies? What safeguards are in place to ensure that conflicts of interest are avoided? Have the taxpayers of West Virginia lost money on any bad loans?

Metronews reached out to Douglass last week. The former 11-term commissioner maintained that nothing inappropriate happened under his watch.

"I just can't comprehend any abnormalities," Douglass said. "I've always been transparent and continue to do so, because insofar as I know all the activities of the department were within the realm of what is expected of . . . the Department of Agriculture."

Douglass did add, however, that he had talked to an attorney. "I can have no further comment until my representative has some information and we can determine what the challenge is."

We'll all know more about the "challenge" when the audit is made public, and hopefully that's soon. Legislative Auditor Aaron Allred's office has a reputation for producing substantial work, and Douglass may find himself facing tougher questions now than anytime during his nearly half-century in office.

Kercheval is host of TalkLine, broadcast statewide by Metronews Radio Network from 10 a.m. to noon weekdays. The show can be heard locally on WCHS 580 AM.



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