State Audit Confirms Blatant Misspending Inside UCDD
NASHVILLE, Tenn. - A just-released state audit confirms blatant misspending and other questionable conduct inside the Upper Cumberland Development District, putting most of the blame on longtime UCDD executive director Wendy Askins.
That audit backs up all the findings of an exclusive NewsChannel 5 investigation, providing a few previously unknown details about the Cookeville-based agency.
"These types of abuses of the public trust are likely to outrage many citizens who live within the Upper Cumberland Development District boundaries – and rightfully so," Comptroller Justin P. Wilson said in a news release.
"Every public dollar that's spent for the personal benefit of a government official is one less dollar that can be spent to benefit the people who need government services. I hope and trust that the Upper Cumberland Development District will put safeguards in place to guard against this type of waste and abuse in the future."
Among the findings, state auditors concluded:
* Askins "falsified records to obtain reimbursement totaling $2,824 for a political campaign event not related to UCDD." As NewsChannel 5 Investigates first revealed, that event was a fundraiser for former state Rep. Henry Fincher, D-Cookeville.
"Ms. Askins knew it was agency funds," said L. Rene Brison, assistant director of investigations for the comptroller's office. "She requested reimbursement for a check that she had personally paid the caterer and then requested reimbursement for the funds. So she knew.
* The former executive director "used UCDD funds to reimburse herself at least $1,229 for personal expenses." The audit notes that Askins also used agency funds to reimburse herself more than $144,000 in a 30-month period, although "documentation was inadequate, in many instances, to determine whether the expenses ... were for agency or for personal benefit."
Brison conceded that $1,229 is "not that much."
"But this could just be the very tip of the iceberg," Brison added. "She received $144,000 over the course of that 30 months. There was gross lack of documentation so there were just thousands and thousands of dollars where we couldn't determine whether this was for Ms. Askins' personal or if it actually benefited the district."
* Askins personally "authorized the alteration of minutes" to show a transfer of $300,000 in agency funds to Living the Dream, a luxurious residence that was supposed to become a home for needy seniors but that also became home for Askins' and her daughter. Those bogus minutes were first discovered by NewsChannel 5.
The former UCDD boss tried to blame her longtime deputy, Larry Webb. But Webb pointed the finger at Askins, and another agency employee backed up his statement.
"The individual that actually changed the minutes within the computer also said that Ms. Askins brought her documentation of how to change those minutes," Brison said.
* Askins also "paid herself at least $9,569 for used furniture and other personal property and also paid family members for second-hand personal property." According to the audit, "Ms. Askins told comptroller investigators that some of the items were 'as good as new,' so she believed it was proper to pay herself the original price."
* She also "deposited a donation specifically intended for the Meals on Wheels program into the Living the Dream project bank account."
* "UCDD funds were used for expensive meals, alcoholic beverages, and other luxury items that did not appear to further governmental or public purposes." In addition, "UCDD funds were used for nonessential cell phone charges, including premium texting and music downloads."
The audit also takes aim at the lack of oversight by the UCDD board, which is made up of elected officials from throughout the 14-county Upper Cumberland region.
"Ms. Askins was allowed to operate with virtually no board oversight," Brison said. "And what I would say to the board is that they're just not window dressing, that they have a responsibility to provide oversight to make sure that the district's operations are benefiting the people it's intended to benefit. They just fell short of that."
The state audit was originally prompted by a request from the Tennessee Commission on Aging and Disability, following questions raised by NewsChannel 5 Investigates. Askins would later claim that she had asked auditors to look at her operations.
On Feb. 24, less than two weeks after NewsChannel 5's first report, the UCDD board placed Askins and her longtime deputy director Larry Webb on administrative leave, pending the outcome of an internal investigation by a Nashville law firm.
Askins resigned on March 20 -- before that investigation was complete.
That audit report will now be forwarded to prosecutors to review.
Cookeville DA Randy York, citing a possible conflict within his office, asked for the appointment of a special prosecutor to review questions regarding UCDD's operations. Knox County DA Randy Nichols was later put in charge of that probe.
The FBI has also been looking into possible violations of federal law.
More stories, documents:
NewsChannel 5 Investigates: UCDD