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Investigators Return To UCDD Offices

Investigators Return To UCDD Offices

By Phil Williams. CREATED May 22, 2013

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - The federal and state criminal investigation of the Upper Cumberland Development District appears to be heating up again.

NewsChannel 5 has learned that agents returned to the Cookeville-based agency in the past week.  That development, according to some experts, suggests that the end of the investigation could be in sight.

Fifteen months ago, NewsChannel 5 Investigates first exposed how then UCDD boss Wendy Askins had poured more than a million dollars of agency money into this elegant house that she called "Living the Dream."

What was supposed to become a home for needy seniors, our investigation discovered, had also become Askins' home.

Within 10 days, the agency's board had put Askins on leave. 

A month later, she resigned.

But, by that time, federal and state agents had opened up criminal investigations of the agency that's supposed to create jobs and help the poor.

This past week, a Tennessee Bureau of Investigation agent returned to their offices to conduct follow-up interviews with employees, according to UCDD's current executive director Mark Farley.

"It obviously suggests they are being very meticulous," said veteran Nashville lawyer Gary Blackburn, who represented two UCDD employees who claimed they faced retaliation for not going along with Askins.

"White collar crime investigations, by their definition, involve a lot of facts, a lot of papers," Blackburn added. "It's not like catching a burglar in a house."

UCDD employees told NewsChannel 5 that agents -- both federal and state -- are showing a continuing interest in the alteration of government documents. A bogus set of minutes that claimed the board approved the transfer of $300,000 of agency money to Living the Dream.

In fact, board members later expressed outrage over what they called an obvious fraud.

"I've seen nothing that merits a criminal investigation," Askins' lawyer, Jack Lowery, said at the time that she resigned.

While Lowery told NewsChannel 5 recently that he has heard nothing about the investigation in months, the fact that agents are still on the case suggests to Blackburn that investigators are closing in.

"The circumstances that they are still investigating and narrowing the focus and getting more detail -- after this passage of time -- suggests that indictment is probable," he added.

NewsChannel 5 has also learned that several UCDD board members have been interviewed in the past few months -- and that agents from several federal and state agencies continue to be involved.

What is not clear is whether the case is likely to go to a federal grand jury.

As for Living the Dream, the new boss at the agency said they have spent a lot of money trying to bring it up to standards that you'd really need for a home for the elderly.

Now, they hope to find a company who will buy it and get UCDD out of that business.

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Phil Williams

Phil Williams

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Phil Williams is chief investigative reporter for NewsChannel 5's nationally award-winning investigative team. His investigations have earned him journalism's highest honors.