LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Anglers who caught the attention of federal lawmakers have preserved access to fishing below dams on the Cumberland River in Kentucky and Tennessee.
President Barack Obama on Monday signed into law a bill blocking the Army Corps of Engineers from erecting barriers to prevent fishing in the tailwaters. Those tailwaters are prime fishing spots in a region known as a recreational haven.
Local officials said the restrictions would have hurt tourism, a key contributor to the region’s economy.
Congress waded into the controversy by passing the Freedom to Fish Act. It puts a two-year moratorium on any barriers that would block access to tailwaters.
Sen. Mitch McConnell praised Obama for reversing a decision to place barriers along the river.
A proposal to permanently ban barriers is pending in the House.
— Note: News release from Sen. Lamar Alexander below (interestingly, it doesn’t mention Obama)
News release from Sen. Lamar Alexander’s office:
WASHINGTON, May 8 – U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) told a top U.S. Army Corps of Engineers official at a budget hearing today that he would restrict the Corps’ ability to transfer new funds to projects if it doesn’t abandon “unreasonable” fishing restrictions that amount to “thumbing your nose at elected officials,” saying, “It sounds to me like we have a life jacket problem – not a water problem.” (Video HERE.)
Senator Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.), the subcommittee chairman whose approval the Corps would also need, called Alexander reasonable “99.9 percent of the time” and told the Corps officials, “My strong advice would be to try to work something out with him.”
“We don’t need Big Brother in Washington holding our hands while we’re fishing down in Tennessee or Kentucky or any other place,” Alexander said to Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works Jo-Ellen Darcy. “If you’re not going to pay attention to the elected representatives of Tennessee and Kentucky and other states, I’m not going to pay attention to your judgment. You have nine major accounts, 918 project accounts, and in order to move that, you need the permission of the chairman and me to [transfer new funds to projects]. … You’re going to find it very hard to get my approval for any reprogramming request – anywhere in the country – until I get the Corps’ attention, and if that doesn’t get your attention, I’m going to work with my colleagues to reduce the reprogramming requests to $1,000 so that any reprogramming you want to do, you’ll have to come back to me and Senator Feinstein and the chairman and ranking member in the House.”
Referring to the order in which the legislative and executive branch duties are laid out in the Constitution – Article I and Article II, respectively – Alexander said, “We’re Article I, you’re Article II – you ought to be paying attention to our judgment on this, especially when so many members of Congress from both sides of the aisle have made themselves clear on this. We don’t need a government that’s big enough to interfere with us when we have enough sense to … get out of the water the 20 percent of the time when it’s spilling through the dam.”
Alexander, the lead Republican or Ranking Member of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development that was holding the hearing, has introduced the “Freedom to Fish Act” to prohibit the Corps from restricting fishing beneath 10 dams on the Cumberland River. On March 23, the U.S. Senate unanimously supported his amendment to the Senate budget resolution allowing Congress to pass legislation prohibiting the Corps plans.
On April 30, the Corps announced that it would move forward with full-time, permanently restricted access to tailwaters areas below the dams, through buoys and signage. Today, Alexander said the Corps would “find it very hard” to get the approval it needs from him as Ranking Member of the subcommittee for “reprogramming” required to move money among the Corps’ more than 900 project accounts.
Alexander pointed to the Corps’ own statistics showing that water only spills through the dams 20 percent of the time, on average. Alexander said, “Closing off the tailwaters 100 percent of the time would be like putting the gate down over the railroad crossing 100 percent of the time – the tracks aren’t dangerous when the train’s not coming, and the water isn’t dangerous when the water isn’t spilling through the dam.”
Former U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Tennessee Jerry Martin, an appointee of President Obama who until stepping down recently would have been responsible for defending the Corps in court, has said the Corps’ restrictions are unreasonable “in light of the tremendous protection from liability enjoyed by the Corps.” The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency has also said it will not enforce the Corps’ restrictions, and Alexander has repeatedly encouraged the Corps to work out a compromise with state agencies to address safety concerns.
News release from Sen. Lamar Alexander’s office:
NASHVILLE, April 30 – U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) today released the following statement on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ announcement today that it would proceed with its proposed fishing restrictions below dams on the Cumberland River:
“This is a waste of taxpayer dollars and an unreasonable interference with the right to fish below the dams the public owns,” Alexander said. “We will therefore move ahead in the U.S. Senate next week with legislation to ensure the freedom of Americans to fish in these waters at times that the state wildlife agencies believe is consistent with reasonable efforts to ensure public safety.”
The senator’s statement follows an announcement by the Corps today, Tuesday, April 30, that it would proceed with restricting access to tailwaters areas below the dams in Tennessee and Kentucky on a full-time, permanent basis through the use of buoys and signage. The Corps is not proceeding with physical barriers at this time, though that has been part of the plan.
Alexander previously introduced the “Freedom to Fish Act” to prohibit the Corps from restricting access to the tailwaters, noting that the waters are only dangerous 20 percent of the time. Cosponsors included Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), and Senators Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.), as well as U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.) in the House.
On March 23, the U.S. Senate unanimously passed a resolution to the budget that would allow for Congress to pass legislation prohibiting the Corps’ plan. Alexander has also held a range of meetings with Corps officials, encouraging the Corps to work with Tennessee and Kentucky wildlife agencies on a compromise to ensure safety.
News release from Sen. Lamar Alexander’s office:
NASHVILLE, Feb. 21 – At a press conference today at Old Hickory Dam, U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) told a gathering of anglers and other community members that he will introduce legislation next week to delay the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ “unreasonable plan to restrict fishing below Cumberland River dams that will destroy remarkably good recreational opportunities and many jobs.”
“Water spills through the Cumberland River dams less than 20 percent of the time on average,” the senator said. “To close off the tailwaters to fishing 100 percent of the time would be like keeping the gate down at the railroad crossing 100 percent of the time: The track isn’t dangerous when the train isn’t coming, and the tailwaters aren’t dangerous when the water isn’t spilling through the dam.”
Alexander said his legislation would require the Corps to conduct an environmental impact review before it could restrict public access to the fishing waters below ten dams on the Cumberland River. The senator said this process would likely take more than a year and would include multiple comment periods, as well as give Congress time to determine if the funding required for the safety barriers on the Cumberland River is in the best interest of public safety and the American taxpayer.
News release from state comptroller’s office:
The Upper Cumberland Development District’s (UCDD) former executive director Wendy Askins called an independent living facility for seniors “one of the sweetest projects in the history of [her] career.” However, only a small handful of seniors lived in the facility after it was completed. And their accommodations were significantly less luxurious than those Askins and her daughter enjoyed after they moved into the publicly-funded facility’s main living quarters.
A report released today by the State Comptroller’s Division of Investigations identified numerous UCDD transactions that did not appear to serve a public or governmental purpose. The report concluded that the volume and type of inappropriate transactions identified indicates that the UCDD board of directors failed to uphold its duty to follow sound business and accounting practices, to ensure that all disbursements were appropriate, and to act in the best interests of the district and its goals.
Development districts are created to promote economic growth and development and to serve those in need within each district’s boundaries. The vast majority of funding for the Upper Cumberland Development District and its programs comes from taxpayer dollars from state and federal government.
The Living the Dream Project was designed and planned by Askins while she served as executive director of the UCDD. The Comptroller’s investigators questioned numerous transactions Askins ordered which did not appear to be in the development district’s best interests. The investigators pursued a trail of improper spending on a project that appeared to primarily benefit Askins and certain members of her family.
News release from state Comptroller’s Office:
Taxpayer money has been used to cover $2 million for travel expenses, meals and entertainment, mobile communications devices and subsidies for a training complex and resort property used by the Upper Cumberland Human Resource Agency, an investigation by the Comptroller’s Division of Investigations has revealed.
Among other issues, investigators found that agency officials spent nearly $60,000 on an annual trip to Washington, D.C., more than $1.6 million to subsidize its training complex and resort property, $123,000 for gift certificates for training events, more than $100,000 annually on 160 mobile communication devices for employees, and thousands of dollars for extravagant meals and entertainment.
The Upper Cumberland Human Resource Agency serves 14 counties in the Cumberland Plateau region with a 63-member board comprised of various county and city mayors and derives the vast majority of its funding from state and federal governments.
COOKEVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A lawsuit has been filed against the Upper Cumberland Development District by a former employee who says her personal messages were hacked.
Attorney Gary Blackburn told WTVF-TV (http://bit.ly/Mnw23x ) in Nashville the lawsuit was filed Wednesday on behalf of Ashley Pealer. The filing alleges the agency violated Pealer’s constitutional guarantee against unreasonable search and seizure as well as federal acts protecting personal information.
The lawsuit names interim UCCD director Randy Williams as well as current agency chairman Mike Gannon.
“This is the first of the lawsuits that we will file,” Blackburn said.
Pealer and her mother Kathy were fired by Williams in June.
Attorney Dan Rader, who represents the development district, said he had not yet seen the lawsuit and could not comment on it.
The agency’s former executive director, Wendy Askins, resigned in March after reports that agency funds were spent on a million-dollar house in Putnam County amid other expenditures. Askins said at the time she made some mistakes, but never personally profited from her job.
In her lawsuit, Pealer claims after she was terminated, she heard from people inside the agency who said some of her private messages were being passed around. Pealer said messages from her private Hotmail and Facebook accounts were printed out.
The lawsuit claims some 300 pages of private text messages were accessed by the defendants and printed out.
In his filing, Blackburn alleges his client’s private communications were targeted because she refused to “remain silent about the illegal behavior of Wendy Askins.”
The lawsuit claims Pealer’s dismissal was handled differently from Askins’ forced resignation in that Askins was allowed to keep her cell phone.
In another development, Putnam County Executive Kim Blaylock questioned Gannon’s refusal last week to allow a vote on her motion calling for the rehiring of Ashley and Kathy Pealer.
Blaylock made the motion during a special meeting called to address the firings. Gannon ruled her motion out of order because the agenda only said that the agency board would “discuss” the matter.
COOKEVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The executive director for the Upper Cumberland Development District has resigned after a series of news reports that agency funds had been spent on a million-dollar house in Putnam County amid other expenditures.
WTFV-TV in Nashville reported (http://bit.ly/GDcdNT ) that Wendy Askins resigned Tuesday morning during a closed-door meeting with lawyers hired by the agency.
The board had previously suspended her and asked lawyers to recover $300,000 spent without board approval, and they requested a state investigation of their own auditor.
Askins said in a prepared statement that she had made some mistakes but denied ever personally profiting from her job. She said that the publicity of the reports has harmed her to the point where she could no longer be effective.
Two Tennessee state lawmakers partly responsible for helping oversee the scandal-gripped Upper Cumberland Development District can count on one hand the number of board meetings they’ve collectively attended in the last two years, reports Andrea Zelinski. Attendance records for meetings of UCDD’s Board of Directors and its Executive Committee dating back to 2010 show that Rep. Charles Curtiss attended one meeting in that time and Sen. Charlotte Burks made two appearances.
“We can’t always break loose” from prior engagements to attend UCDD meetings, Curtiss, D-Sparta, said in his Capitol Hill office during a recent interview with TNReport.
…UCDD’s executive director, Wendy Askins, and her deputy, Larry Webb, were recently placed on administrative leave after a WTVF NewsChannel 5 investigation revealed Askins had moved in to the agency’s million-dollar “Living the Dream” assisted living facility for needy seniors.
NewsChannel 5′s UCDD series has also raised questions not just about the “Living the Dream” facility, but management of the agency in general. UCDD doled out thousands of dollars for campaign events, booze, personal gifts and other potentially suspicious reimbursements under Askins’ leadership, WTVF reported.
After the WTVF “Living the Dream” story first broke last month, UCDD board members who previously voted for or vocally defended taxpayer-spending on the plush estate — or signed off on other curious agency spending — claimed they were duped into acquiescence by Askins and a UCDD auditor, whom board members now allege was incompetent.
Curtiss has missed every meeting since 2010 except this year’s Jan. 19 meeting, where board members voted to revise the official minutes from a previous meeting which occurred on Feb. 16, 2010 regarding discussions they’d had about the “Living the Dream” project. Curtiss was one of 16 members who voted “yes” on the revisions, which involved retroactively approving $300,000 for “Living the Dream,” even though he wasn’t at the 2010 meeting in question.
A number of Tennessee lawmakers are now calling for a thoroughgoing probe of UCDD by state auditors. The situation is raising concerns among lawmakers that this board, and possibly others like it, risk being poor stewards of government money and deserve focused legislative investigation as well
The Cumberland County Commission has approved a resolution urging the Legislature to enact a “private act” for the county allowing the hunting of wild hogs with dogs, reports the Crossville Chronicle. The resolution passed unanimously and will be forwarded to state Representative Cameron Sexton requesting a private act be passed for Cumberland County.
County Commissioner Carmin Lynch, 9th District, asked what difference the private act would make.
“It’s confusing and I wonder what difference a private act will make,” Lynch said.
Joe Koester, 5th District commissioner, said he also wondered the same thing and spoke with TWRA (Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency) about the matter and invited TWRA Region III Wildlife Program Manager Kirk Miles to come to the meeting to answer questions.
Miles explained the main difference between the current law and the private act, or resolution, would be that hunters or landowners would not need a permit to hunt the wild hogs with dogs.
The other significant difference is that, with the private act, there would be no limit as to how many designated hunters could be used to capture or eradicate the hogs from a landowner’s property. The discretion would be up to the landowner, who could designate any means necessary to protect their land and property from destruction from free running feral hogs.
The current law sets a limit of 10 designated hunters to help.