UCDD Officials Surrender To Face Federal Charges
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Not guilty!
That was the plea entered Friday by two former officials of the Upper Cumberland Development District in Cookeville.
They surrendered to U.S. marshals after being indicted by a federal grand jury on charges related to that million-dollar Living the Dream house in rural Putnam County.
Former UCDD boss Wendy Askins and her assistant, Larry Webb, faces a host of federal charges, including conspiracy, bank fraud and money laundering.
Dekalb County Mayor Mike Foster, who faces of a single count of making false statements regarding federal funds, has not yet been able to hire an attorney. So he chose not to enter a plea during an initial appearance in federal court.
Askins, who once drove a luxurious government vehicle, arrived at the federal courthouse in a taxi cab. Also surrendering just minutes later were Webb and Foster.
"Any comment about the charges?" NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked the Dekalb County mayor as he entered the courthouse.
"I think I need to find out more about them first," he answered.
Inside, a federal magistrate held separate hearings for each, somberly reminding them of all the charges they face and the potential penalties -- in Askins' case, some 225 years in federal prison.
"She's, of course, entered a plea of not guilty because she's not guilty of any of the offenses in the indictment," Askins' attorney, Peter Strianse, said after her hearing.
But prosecutors say that million-dollar house in rural Putnam County was the center of a criminal conspiracy involving Askins and Webb. They are accused of diverting federal government funds and illegally securing bank loans for Living the Dream.
What was supposed to become a home for needy seniors also became the home for Askins and her daughter. She outfitted their living quarters with fancy items like a $3,000 computer-controlled steam shower.
Those are the types of things that her attorney acknowledged might not look good.
"So you think she may have made mistakes, but not committed any crimes?" we asked.
"Yeah," Strianse answered, "I think in every case, particularly these kinds of cases, you are always going to find things that could have been done differently or could have been done better, but that doesn't mean that anybody had any intent to defraud."
Lost in the controversy, the defense lawyer argued, is Askins' career-long focus at UCDD on trying to help folks in need.
But inside those offices, prosecutors say Askins and Webb orchestrated an effort to fabricate and destroy evidence to cover up their misspending.
Former U.S. Attorney Ed Yarbrough is Webb's lawyer.
"I would have to say from seeing the indictment that it's going to require a good deal on our part," Yarbrough said. "Certainly Mr. Webb intends to stand by his plea of not guilty and, if necessary, will go to trial to show that he is not guilty of these offenses."
As for Askins, her attorney says he believes one thing is clear: "The proof is going to show in this case that there is not a penny of any government money that went into Ms. Askins pocket."
Mike Foster faces the least serious charge -- essentially over comments he made in a meeting of the agency's board.
Right now, he's trying to hire another former U.S. Attorney, Hal Hardin, to represent him.
While he did not enter a formal plea, he told NewsChannel 5 Investigates that he's shocked by this indictment and really does not believe that he has done anything wrong.
As to how soon these cases might go to trial, it's too early to tell. A lot of it could depend on whether any of these three people decides to cut a deal with prosecutors.