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