Lawmakers Question 'Living the Dream' Funding
NASHVILLE, Tennessee -- State lawmakers want to know who paid for Living the Dream.
Questions about that million-dollar house in Putnam County came up Wednesday at a budget hearing for a state agency that doles out federal and state money for the elderly.
It all follows an exclusive NewsChannel 5 investigation.
Living the Dream was supposed to become a retirement home for needy seniors. A lot of the money came from the Upper Cumberland Development District, an agency that's supposed to create jobs and help the poor.
It was a UCDD project that also became home for the agency's executive director, Wendy Askins, who purchased some of the finest accessories.
"I guess what I'm struggling with is: how did somebody not notice this? I mean it's an incredible place as far as the aerial photographs," asked Sen. Kerry Roberts, R-Springfield.
Jim Shulman, executive director of the Tennessee Commission on Aging and Disability, answered, "I'm not sure exactly how NewsChannel 5 got ahold of it, but we learned it from NewsChannel 5."
Shulman told the Senate General Welfare Committee that, after NewsChannel 5 Investigates began asking questions, his office found what its report later called a "questionable business arrangement" with a for-profit company set up by Askins to draw down state and federal funds to provide services for Living the Dream's few residents.
Still, Jim Shulman said, as to where the money came from to build the facility, auditors are trying to figure that out.
"What we have heard is that a lot of that money that went into purchasing Living the Dream came from 'unrestricted funds,'" he explained after the committee meeting. "The question is, where did those unrestricted funds come from? Did any of it come from us?"
During a radio interview Monday, UCDD board member Kim Blaylock tried to distance the agency itself from Living the Dream.
"The board of directors of Living the Dream is the one that's made all these decisions," said Blaylock, who is the Putnam County executive. She noted that Living the Dream was set up as a separate non-profit with its own board.
"Wendy Askins as an individual, well, and the three or other four members did this. The board didn't do this project."
Last month, the UCDD board retroactively approved $300,000 seed money for Living the Dream after Askins' office gave NewsChannel 5 a bogus set of minutes claiming they had approved it last year.
Blaylock told WHUB-AM talk show host Dwight Henry that isn't true.
"The big issue that the development district board has is that $300,000 that was transferred from UCDD...," Henry started to say.
"Without our approval," Blaylock interjected.
Our investigation discovered the other sources of funding include:
We found a $225,000 from another UCDD entity, the Cumberland Area Investment Corporation. UCDD's website notes, "CAIC in cooperation with private lenders, USDA Rural Development and U.S. Department of Commerce-Economic Development Administration(EDA) offers loans to small businesses in the 14 county Upper Cumberland Region."
CAIC minutes show that UCDD deputy director Larry Webb requested the loan from the CAIC board. Webb serves as CAIC chairman and on the Living the Dream board.
In addition, there's at least $150,000 more that Askins borrowed in the name of yet another entity, the Cumberland Regional Development Corp. UCDD's website says, "CRDC works with HUD, THDA, Federal Home Loan Bank & USDA Rural Development to create low cost affordable housing."
Loan documents show that CRDC secured a $300,000 line of credit from First National Bank of Tennessee in April 2011. It appears to use UCDD accounts as collateral.
The check register for Living the Dream's construction account shows three deposits of $50,000 each in May and June 2011. One entry shows the deposit was "from First National Bank to CRDC to LTD construction."
In addition, there's another $25,000 deposit to that account "from CRDC."
Bank of Putnam County
The rest of that money, almost $750,000, came in a loan to Living the Dream from the Bank of Putnam County. That's where UCDD does a lot of its banking -- and the loan documents use the agency's address.
"What I can tell you is that there are other entities within state government that I think have also looked at this as well," Shulman assured lawmakers.
The UCDD board meets Friday at 10 a.m. in a special session to discuss the controversy.