TBI Joins Expanding UCDD Criminal Probe

TBI Joins Expanding UCDD Criminal Probe

By Phil Williams. CREATED Nov 20, 2012

COOKEVILLE, Tenn. -- A criminal investigation into the Upper Cumberland Development District is growing.

Now, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation has joined the FBI in taking a hard look at Cookeville-based agency. The Tennessee Attorney General's Office confirms that there have been discussions about it possibly taking over the case from the special prosecutor.

"I would be very surprised if this did not result in the indictment of some persons," said Gary Blackburn, the lawyer for two UCDD employees who sued to get their jobs back after they claimed they were fired for refusing to go along with criminal wrongdoing.

It's all part of the scandal first uncovered by NewsChannel 5 Investigates.

Former UCDD boss Wendy Askins would appear to be the main target.

Our NewsChannel 5 investigation first exposed the million-dollar Living the Dream development that she turned into her own home, along with hundreds of thousands of dollars in questionable spending.

TBI spokesperson Kristin Helm confirmed that the agency was asked to join the investigation and began conducting interviews this week. 

"That suggests that the investigation has uncovered evidence of state law violations in addition to federal," Blackburn said.

He added that the FBI has continued interviewing agency employees about possible misuse of federal money.

"The FBI has limited resources today because of homeland security issues," said Blackburn, a former federal prosecutor. "They do not devote enormous blocks of time, in my experience, to matters which they do not intend to pursue to a conclusion."

The TBI spokesperson told NewsChannel 5 that agents have specifically been asked to investigate allegations of possible "theft and falsifying records" -- issues raised in a recent state audit.

As our investigation first revealed, Askins transferred $300,000 in agency money to Living the Dream.

Auditors concluded she was the one who ordered the creation of some bogus minutes claiming the transfer had actually been approved by the agency's board.

"The individual that actually changed the minutes within the computer also said that Ms. Askins brought her documentation of how to change those minutes," said L. Rene Brison, assistant director of investigations for the comptroller's office.

As for what's next for Askins or anyone else involved, Blackburn said:

"If I represented anyone who was a target of an investigation, what I would try to do would be to learn as much as good as I could about the culpability of my client and to make peace with the government sooner rather than later."

By that, he meant a possible plea bargain.

Blackburn said that investigators will finish their work and present it to prosecutors -- either federal or state. If prosecutors think there's a case, they would take it to a grand jury for possible indictments -- unless there was a deal of some sort.

NewsChannel 5 also reached out to Askins' lawyer, Jack Lowery. He said he had nothing to say at this point -- although he has repeatedly said he does not think what she did was a crime.

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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.