Where Was The UCDD Board During Spending Spree?
By Phil Williams. CREATED Feb 28, 2012
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Who's responsible for all the wild spending at the Upper Cumberland Development District?
On Friday, the board suspended its longtime executive director and voted to report its own auditor for a possible state investigation.
But where was the board when all this was going on?
"It happened on their watch, and they should be held accountable for that," said Steve Brumfield, a Nashville community activist who's served on a dozen non-profit boards.
At Friday's meeting of the UCDD board, there were lots of questions about how executive director Wendy Askins was able to pour some much of the agency's money into that million-dollar Living the Dream house, as well as questions about how they could have missed it all.
"You never asked how is this money being spent?" NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Warren County Executive John Pelham.
"No, sir," he admitted.
Pelham not only sat on the UCDD board, he also served on the board of a non-profit corporation set up for Living the Dream, along with several other housing-related boards under the agency's umbrella.
"We would talk about the need there for housing," Pelham explained.
"But you never asked tough questions?" we asked.
"Well," he said, "we just never discussed -- the construction."
Brumfield said "that is the responsibility of the board." He added that if UCDD board members weren't watching the money, they weren't really doing their jobs.
"The reason you even form a board -- one of the reasons -- is that you want to say, well, this is who is on our board and they are looking over our shoulders -- and so if these are good people, then you know we are doing right with your money."
On Friday, Putnam County Executive Kim Blaylock, herself a former accountant, blamed UCDD auditor Tom Jones for failing to catch the misspending, even forcing a vote on whether Jones should be reported to the state.
But our investigation discovered the board had accepted Jones' audits -- even when they contained glaring mathematical errors.
"Is that something board members should have caught?" NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Brumfield.
"Absolutely," he insisted. "I mean, that's our job. That's our job. Now, not everybody on the board is a finance person. But that's the job of all the board."
Blaylock told NewsChannel 5 that she just looked at the bottom line and counted on the auditor to do his job.
"A CEO would just say, 'Wait a minute here!'" Brumfield exclaimed. "They (the numbers) don't add up."
But while board members may not have been watching the money, some traveled across the country with Askins to conferences at agency expense. Among the destinations: New Orleans, Washington, Chicago, San Diego, even Alaska.
"I always used those conferences to the best of my ability to promote our county," Pelham said.
The Warren County executive made several of those trips where the agency ran up some hefty tabs.
"There were some pretty big expenditures on some of these trips. Were you mindful of that?" we asked.
"Well, no, sir," Pelham said. "I mean, I know they would take care of our airfare and hotel rooms."
"Some pretty expensive dinners too?" we continued.
Pelham explained, "We would normally go out and have a meal, a nice meal, maybe one night on the trip, yes."
All the more reason, Steve Brumfield argued, that UCDD members should have asked how the money was being spent.
That's one of the questions that the lawyer hired by the board has promised to explore himself.
He told members on Friday that he'll not only report back on spending under Ms. Askins' watch, he'll also make recommendations on how they can be better stewards of the public's money.