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UCDD Chairman Blocks Votes On Fired Employees

UCDD Chairman Blocks Votes On Fired Employees

By Phil Williams. CREATED Jul 10, 2012

COOKEVILLE, Tenn. -- It was yet another day of high drama at the Upper Cumberland Development District.

Tuesday, the board that oversees the Cookeville-based agency held a special meeting to discuss the recent firings of two longtime employees.

But, in the end, the board's chairman refused to let the board take any votes.

"I overrule your motion because it's not on the agenda and can't be voted on today," Cannon County Executive Mike Gannon responded to a motion recommending that the two employees be reinstated. "Anyone else like to make a comment?"

Several board members had forced the special meeting to discuss whether the two employees should be reinstated and whether the man who's temporarily leading the agency should be prevented from firing anyone else.

But Gannon maintained his own order, enforcing an agenda that he had drawn up that did not allow for a vote on recent firings by interim director Randy Williams.

"If that's not what we are supposed to talk about today, then you are in violation of the bylaws and you are not fulfilling your duties as a chair," said Putnam County Executive Kim Blaylock, who led the effort to convene the special meeting and who made the motion in support of the two employees.

"Well, if you'll notice. it says members request a special-called meeting to discuss it," Gannon said, emphasizing the word "discuss." "If you are not happy with the way it is...."

"I don't think you can overrule that motion," Blaylock objected.

"Well, I did," Gannon shot back.

At the center of the controversy is the recent firings of longtime agency employees Kathy and Ashley Pealer who say they were fired for refusing to go along with the abuses that led to former UCDD boss Wendy Askins being forced to resign. 

"Come on now, people," interjected Livingston Mayor Curtis Hayes. "We're better than that, and we're smarter than that."

Hayes noted that the two women had received glowing reviews, but he said something changed less than two weeks after Askins' longtime assistant was put in charge.

"I just can't see, people, how that Mr. Williams has been here two weeks before he made a decision to terminate two employees," he said. "I think it's clear where we stand. I think it somewhat has been retaliation."

It was a charge that Randy Williams denied.

"It's reorganization, consolidation," he told the board. "It's not about retaliation."

Blaylock later expressed frustration with Gannon's actions.

"Well, I'm a little upset because our bylaws say if eight members call a meeting, then we'll have a meeting," she said. "And what we called the meeting to discuss was not on the agenda. I'm pretty upset about that."

Her mother, state Sen. Charlotte Burks, also attended the meeting.  She told Gannon, "This is the way things work when you don't want something to happen."

While Gannon wouldn't allow a vote, he was ready with an attack of his own.

"I think the word 'hit list' was used -- there's your hit list," he said holding up a handwritten chart. "I've denied it from day one, and I was wrong -- but it was made out in Ashley Pealer's handwriting."

Yet, when NewsChannel 5 Investigates tried to ask why the people on that list were not fired during the three months that Earl Carwile served as interim director and Ashley Pealer served as his deputy, he suddenly decided he shouldn't say anything.

"I have no content on the advice from lawyer -- I can't, I can't talk," he said.

After the meeting, Ashley Pealer said that she had penciled in names, marking off those who may be implicated in the on-going scandal and others where the agency had no funding for their positions.

She says that was just planning for what might happen.

The FBI is continuing its investigation of the agency.  NewsChannel 5 has learned that the meeting was also attended by a special agent from the inspector general's office for the U.S. Economic Development Administration, which provides some of UCDD's funding.

State Rep. Charles Curtiss, D-Sparta, expressed his concern that UCDD insiders might be targeting those who are suspected of providing information to NewsChannel 5.

"I hope it's last thing anybody in this room would want to happen is that somebody would be terminated because there was suspicion that they were the one that informed the news media," the House member told the board.

Gannon denied that those were the motives behind the firings.

"I had no idea who contacted Channel 5 until a couple of weeks ago -- uh, it was after the terminations," the Cannon County executive said. "I didn't know personally. Still didn't know for sure until about a week ago."

Asked afterwards how he had discovered NewsChannel 5's sources, he denied ever making such a statement.

"I misquoted if I said that," he answered. "I still don't know for sure."

As for the future of her and her mother, their attorney was there, and he met with UCDD officials after the meeting.

"They are either going to hire Kathy and Ashley Pealer back or we're going to sue them -- it's as simple as that," Gary Blackburn said.

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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.