Two Tennessee state lawmakers partly responsible for helping oversee the scandal-gripped Upper Cumberland Development District can count on one hand the number of board meetings they’ve collectively attended in the last two years.
Attendance records for meetings of UCDD’s Board of Directors and its Executive Committee dating back to 2010 show that Rep. Charles Curtiss attended one meeting in that time and Sen. Charlotte Burks made two appearances.
“We can’t always break loose” from prior engagements to attend UCDD meetings, Curtiss, D-Sparta, said in his Capitol Hill office during a recent interview with TNReport.
“They have a lot of meetings while I’m here. I’m still earning a living, so when they decide to have a meeting at 10 o’clock or 11 o’clock in the day or 1 o’clock in the afternoon, a lot of times I’m on the job, and I can’t just walk off the job,” he said.
Curtiss and Burks have served on the board since they were elected to the General Assembly in the 1990s. They say they see themselves more as liaisons between the Legislature and UCDD than full-fledged board members, who are responsible for ensuring that the development agency faithfully executes its mission of helping the poor and improving the region’s economic outlook.
The Upper Cumberland Development District encompasses 14 counties in eastern Middle Tennessee consisting of 5,000 square miles and containing a population of 338,000 people. UCDD’s website submits that the agency is “always on the lookout for new, creative ways to serve our area.”
UCDD’s executive director, Wendy Askins, and her deputy, Larry Webb, were recently placed on administrative leave after a WTVF NewsChannel 5 investigation revealed Askins had moved in to the agency’s million-dollar “Living the Dream” assisted living facility for needy seniors.
NewsChannel 5’s UCDD series raised questions not just about the “Living the Dream” facility, but management of the agency in general. UCDD doled out thousands of dollars for campaign events, booze, personal gifts and other potentially suspicious reimbursements under Askins’ leadership, WTVF reported.
After the WTVF “Living the Dream” story first broke last month, UCDD board members who previously voted for or vocally defended taxpayer-spending on the plush estate — or signed off on other curious agency spending — claimed they were duped into acquiescence by Askins and a UCDD auditor, whom board members now allege was incompetent.
Curtiss has missed every meeting since 2010 except this year’s Jan. 19 meeting, where board members voted to revise the official minutes from a previous meeting which occurred on Feb. 16, 2010 regarding discussions they’d had about the “Living the Dream” project. Curtiss was one of 16 members who voted “yes” on the revisions, which involved retroactively approving $300,000 for “Living the Dream,” even though he wasn’t at the 2010 meeting in question.
A number of Tennessee lawmakers are now calling for a thoroughgoing probe of UCDD by state auditors. The situation is raising concerns among lawmakers that this board, and possibly others like it, risk being poor stewards of government money and deserve focused legislative investigation as well. Comptroller Justin Wilson’s office would not confirm or deny if an investigation is in fact formally underway.
At least one lawmaker who favors a critical examination of UCDD’s dealings and direction of late says he believes membership on any taxpayer-funded agency or organization’s board carries with it a solemn duty to keep vigilant for potential misuse of public funds.
“There is a problem, and I want to find out what the root of it is and fix it,” said Rep. Mark Pody. The Lebanon Republican said the UCDD scandal has left “a bad taste in my mouth.”
Curtiss and Burks count themselves among those who want to see the state Comptroller start regularly auditing the agency. They’re also calling for a legislative study of the UCDD board’s activities and a look into similar public agencies that oversee millions of taxpayer dollars.
Pody said he isn’t necessarily looking to lay blame for UCDD’s woes on Curtiss and Burks’ absences. “I’m not going to comment good or bad on either one,” he said.
“But I will say that if it’s a situation where they can’t be on the board, we probably need to find other people that can,” Pody told TNReport. He said it may be necessary to “reconstitute” UCDD’s board and appoint members who “can and are willing to ask the hard questions.”
Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver is presently pushing a bill that would boot members from the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Commission if they miss more than four meetings in a year, an idea she says should be replicated throughout all state boards and commissions.
Asked if that should apply to UCDD, Weaver said, “Very much so.”
“If you’re going to serve on these boards, you basically are saying to the people (that) you know a lot of what’s going on,” said the Lancaster Republican, whose legislative district includes part of the Upper Cumberland Development District.
Weaver continued, “To just not go because you don’t feel like it, or something else (came up) you think is a priority, other than death or sickness, then maybe you should re-evaluate your service, and say, ‘You know, I’d probably ought not do this, because I’m not serving the commission justice, and I’m certainly not serving the people that I serve justice’.”
In the last two years, Burks has attended only the UCDD’s annual meetings held in June. At the 2010 meeting, gubernatorial candidates Zach Wamp, a Republican, and Mike McWherter, a Democrat, shared their visions for Tennessee to the group. In 2011, the meeting Burks attended involved a visit from the state Department of Economic and Community Development’s assistant commissioner talking about the Haslam administration’s job-growth priorities.
“I think it’s not the make-up of the board — it’s just when the board doesn’t know something that’s going on, how can they confront it if it wasn’t brought before them or they had no knowledge of the things that were going on?” said Burks, whose late husband, Sen. Tommy Burks, was also a UCDD board member.
The full UCDD board is made up of 62 people, mostly county executives and city mayors from the 14-county region. The executive committee is made up of half of that and, according to its bylaws, must include a member from both chambers of the General Assembly.
“A lot of people on the board rarely ever come to a meeting. They’re members, and they have a vote, but other than that, they don’t really come very much,” said UCDD’s interim executive director, Earl Carwile.
Alex Harris contributed to this report.