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iTeam investigation prompts change in approach to purchasing gift cards for drug court

Another iTeam exclusive investigation, as we continue to track your tax dollars, into thousands of dollars in gift cards purchased by the state's drug courts. (WCHS/WVAH)

Another iTeam exclusive investigation, as we continue to track your tax dollars, into thousands of dollars in gift cards purchased by the state's drug courts.

In 2016 and 2017, West Virginia drug courts bought 529 gift cards, adding up to $105,094. The gift cards are used as incentives for participants in drug court, which offers those who have committed low-level drug crimes, to get clean, instead of going to jail.

For West Virginia Auditor JB McCuskey, whose office handles state purchasing, the numbers pose a few issues.

"We have a policy in the West Virginia Auditor's Office that the purchasing card isn't to be used for gift cards in general," McCuskey said.

All of the gift cards were purchased with state purchasing cards or p-cards. McCuskey said the policy against gift cards is in place because buying gift cards is an easy way to commit fraud. Participants pay what they can into the drug court and we were told that is the money used for the gift card incentives, not taxpayer dollars, but the auditor's office points out that anything purchased on a p-card, is coming from the general fund.

"The transparency ends at that level, so, you can purchase a gift card and what is bought on the gift card is unknown. We don't know what that gift card ended up buying; we just know that a p-card was used to buy a gift card," McCuskey said. McCuskey added that exceptions can be made on a case-by-case basis, if his office gives permission.

Eyewitness News filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the auditor's office, and after combing through hundreds of documents and receipts, a few caught our eye: two, $1,000 gift cards to Walmart bought in Hardy County, a gift card for a very specific $288.04, purchased in Wayne County, and two $50 gift cards to Victoria's Secret purchased for a juvenile drug court participant in Raleigh County.

We took the findings to Stephanie Bond, the head of the state's drug court program. She said there is more than what meets the eye when it comes to the receipts.

"If you see a card for say, $500, that card is not going to a participant," Bond said.

Gift cards are bought and then used by the probation officers, who don't have state purchasing cards, to buy various incentives. Those can include gift cards in smaller denominations, sanitary items, bus fare, or gas cards.

When it comes to the incentives, Bond said the state follows national best practices and incentives are a huge part of making drug courts work.

"We have rewards and we have consequences in everything that we do in life, and research will show you that rewards are four times more likely to result in changed behavior than a consequence is. It's for staying clean, maybe helping someone out, advancing a phase level," Bond said.

Bond also points out drug court costs are far less than incarceration: about $6,000 per year, per participant, compared to about $25,000 a year in jail and prison costs.

"This way they are in the community, they are living life, and they are getting the treatment, the support and the accountability they need," Bond said.

But the issue remains: purchasing all of these gift cards on a state p-cards is not allowed.

After the iTeam brought the issue to the state Supreme Court's attention, which oversees the state drug courts, things are changing.

"We are working on a proposal that we will present to the justices and then hopefully to the auditor's office so that we can get permission to do that. Obviously, there was some lack of oversight on both of our parts on that because it had been going on for a number of years," Bond said.

McCuskey said there were some instances that there were purchases "that I was uncomfortable with, which is one of the main reasons we were very keen to work with the Supreme Court to make sure this doesn't happen again."

Participants pay what they can into the drug court and we were told that is the money used for the gift card incentives, but the auditor's office points out that anything purchased on a p-card, is coming from the general fund.

And about those Victoria's Secret gift cards purchased down in Raleigh County, Judge H.L. Kirkpatrick, who heads up the juvenile drug court there, was unaware of the purchase until we called him. He investigated and told us, it was for an 18 year old who wanted something from the store's "Pink" clothing line. He also told us they will be steering clear of Victoria's Secret in the future.

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