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Officials not exempt from the rules

January 12, 2014

When Walt Helmick became West Virginia commissioner of agriculture last year, one of the first things he did was to request a thorough audit of his department. That is not unusual, especially when an office holder’s predecessor has been in office for many years.


What auditors found was unusual, however. Former Agriculture Commissioner Gus Douglass served in that position for 44 years. He headed the department for half its history. During that time, “very troubling activities” occurred, House of Delegates Speaker Tim Miley, D-Harrison, said Thursday.


Miley added he and state Senate President Jeff Kessler have turned findings from the audit over to U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin’s office.


While not making accusations of wrongdoing, Miley was more specific than often is the case in such situations. He told a reporter auditors had found “questionable accounting methods, expense reimbursements and loans administered by the agency.”


In a news release, Miley added that neither Kessler, Helmick nor he “tolerate any activities that lack integrity or violate the public trust.”


For decades, longevity in office fed longevity in office for Douglass. His name may well have been the best-known among state-level officials in West Virginia. Re-election became virtually automatic for him because of that name recognition.


That sort of tenure can breed complacency and yes, arrogance among both the chief of an agency and those who work under him.


Whether wrongdoing or merely sloppy bookkeeping is involved is not known. Again, however, Miley’s harsh comments do not sound as if he is talking about technicalities.


Clearly, both state auditors and the U.S. attorney’s office should leave no stone unturned in their probe of the agriculture department’s practices under Douglass. If changes are needed, they should be made immediately.


And if the investigation shows culpability by Douglass and/or any of those who served under him, justice should be meted out swiftly. West Virginians need to know the rules will be enforced, even when they are broken by those with long records of service.


— News and Sentinel, Parkersburg