UCDD Firings Trigger Claims Of Retaliation
COOKEVILLE, Tenn. -- There are serious allegations about a vendetta now being waged inside the troubled Upper Cumberland Development District by allies of the longtime director who was forced to resign.
In the past month, two longtime employees have been fired -- and there's talk that more firings could be on the way.
But the people being let go are not the ones who had a hand in that Living the Dream scandal that engulfed the agency that was supposed to create jobs and help the poor.
Those two employees tell NewsChannel 5 Investigates that they were fired for doing what was right.
"I was shocked -- we were being treated as if were criminals," said Ashley Pealer, who was fired last month after working at UCDD for almost 10 years.
Her mother, Kathy Pealer, was fired after having worked in a separate department for 11 years.
"It was very emotional," Kathy recalled.
After the uproar over that million-dollar Living the Dream house -- and the alleged misappropriation of agency funds by longtime UCDD boss Wendy Askins -- Ashley had been appointed interim deputy director.
Veteran employee Earl Carwile was named interim director.
"When Earl and I were appointed in those positions, we were moving past that because we have people to serve," Ashley said. "But the issue strongly became that they were targeting us."
Then, on June 5th, the agency's board named a new interim director.
That person, Randy Williams, had been Askins' longtime assistant. When state regulators had begun asking about Living the Dream, she fired off a letter accusing them of just looking for "somewhere to go on a rainy day." Williams' initials were on the letter he had helped draft.
In fact, the Pealers say Wendy Askins' brother, Chad -- who still works for the agency -- began telling folks that as many as six people were about to get the axe.
"You have no doubt there was a hit list," we asked.
"Absolutely," Ashley answered.
Then, less two weeks after he was appointed, Randy Williams called Ashley in to tell her she was being terminated immediately.
"I asked him on what grounds," she recalled. "He said 'departmental consolidation.' I looked down at his desk and saw that my mother's termination notice was there as well, and I said, 'My mother, as well, how convenient.'"
Kathy got similar treatment.
"I just couldn't quite understand how it had gotten to that," she said. "Why us? Why were we being targeted? We were trying to do the right thing."
The two were escorted out of the building by Michelle Price, an agency employee who had handled some of the books for Living the Dream.
"I said, 'Please hold my phone for me. I'll be back,'" Ashley said, talking about her words to Price. "She said, 'I'm afraid there is no saving. You've already made too many people mad.'"
Earl Carwile, who had resigned as interim director in protest over decisions by board members that he believed stood in the way of real reform, told NewsChannel 5 Investigates that he too began hearing about a hit list right after he quit.
"It was done for retaliation," Carwile said.
Who were they targeting?
"They were targeting the people they thought had talked to Channel 5."
But the Pealers said that they "had never spoken with anyone from the news media."
Still, they admitted that they had gone to two board members after Askins and her deputy director Larry Webb tried to divert money to Living the Dream from donations people had given for holiday packages for the elderly.
"I said that this is exactly how the private donor wants this money spent, and he just kept saying, 'Times are changing. We don't need to have anyone telling us how to spend the money that comes into the development district.'"
In addition, they said that they also shared concerns about how Askins had diverted $300,000 in agency funds to Living the Dream.
"I didn't think that was right, obviously," Ashley said. "I knew that there was no board approval of that $300,000."
Soon afterwards, they recalled, Askins began looking for the mole inside her offices.
"Wendy was asking questions -- who's talking, who's talking, who in my staff is talking," Kathy said.
It was an attitude that, they say, intensified as our NewsChannel 5 investigation got closer.
"We had a directors meeting and Wendy stated, 'If I'm going down, you're going down with me,'" Ashley remembered. "We were all shocked."
Ashley said that she's now told what she knows to the FBI, which is continuing its investigation.
"When they first started these investigations, of course, I was there every day dealing with all of it," Carwile said. "It seems like the names that were being brought up at that time are in charge now."
Now the Pealers and their lawyer, Gary Blackburn, say there's strong evidence that -- since the firings -- someone at UCDD may have illegally hacked into Ashley's Facebook and private email in an attempt to discredit them.
"They tried to bully these people, taken their private messages, treated them like criminals," Blackburn said. "The bullying is over -- it's over now."
Our investigation also discovered strong hints that a few board members may have been involved in the firings.
But there's also a small group of members who are upset and they got the votes to force a special board meeting Tuesday at 10 a.m.
Still, Blackburn has sent the agency a letter, warning that he will sue if the women are not reinstated.
As for a search for a permanent executive director, the board is now in the process of trying to hire a new executive director. Right now, two employees -- Randy Williams and Michelle Price -- are finalists for the job.