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State Comptroller Releases UCDD Probe

Press release from the Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury; October 15, 2012: 

The Upper Cumberland Development District’s (UCDD) former executive director Wendy Askins called an independent living facility for seniors “one of the sweetest projects in the history of [her] career.” However, only a small handful of seniors lived in the facility after it was completed. And their accommodations were significantly less luxurious than those Askins and her daughter enjoyed after they moved into the publicly-funded facility’s main living quarters.

A report released today by the State Comptroller’s Division of Investigations identified numerous UCDD transactions that did not appear to serve a public or governmental purpose. The report concluded that the volume and type of inappropriate transactions identified indicates that the UCDD board of directors failed to uphold its duty to follow sound business and accounting practices, to ensure that all disbursements were appropriate, and to act in the best interests of the district and its goals.

Development districts are created to promote economic growth and development and to serve those in need within each district’s boundaries. The vast majority of funding for the Upper Cumberland Development District and its programs comes from taxpayer dollars from state and federal government.

The Living the Dream Project was designed and planned by Askins while she served as executive director of the UCDD. The Comptroller’s investigators questioned numerous transactions Askins ordered which did not appear to be in the development district’s best interests. The investigators pursued a trail of improper spending on a project that appeared to primarily benefit Askins and certain members of her family.

Askins personally selected tens of thousands of dollars in upgrades for the main area of the home which she and her daughter occupied by themselves. Askins paid more than $6,000 for steam showers for both her and her daughter’s bathrooms, more than $1,500 for a double-sided fireplace in the home’s main living area, nearly $1,000 for a fireplace in her own master bedroom, and more than $7,000 for decorative fountains. Askins also spent more than $25,000 on a curved staircase for the home which led to her daughter’s upstairs living area.

By last February, the project had a price tag of nearly $1.4 million, the Comptroller’s report revealed.

Among the many unnecessary purchases for the Living the Dream home, Askins and various family members received more than $24,000 in direct personal benefits from transactions she orchestrated with the development district. Askins used nearly $10,000 in district funds to purchase used furniture, televisions and exercise equipment from herself for use in her Living the Dream home and more than $14,000 to purchase other used furniture and items from her immediate family. She also submitted a false reimbursement request and received nearly $3,000 from UCDD for catering expenses related to a political campaign event not associated with the development district. Additionally, Askins reimbursed herself $1,229 for other personal expenses such as fuel for her personal out-of-state travel and her personal credit card fees.

In 2011, Askins spent $2,000 in UCDD funds to purchase a 3-D capable computer and $99 for 3-D glasses, and incurred over $600 in costs for ring-back tones, premium texts and music downloads on her district cell phone, according to investigators.

The Comptroller’s report further details that at its 2010 annual meeting, the UCDD treated board members and approximately 80 other guests to food and entertainment at a local winery. This meeting alone cost the agency more than $6,200 and appear to further no public or governmental purposes.

Investigators attribute the magnitude of such waste and abuse to the fact that Askins and her deputy director had unfettered discretion to spend public funds on a far-too-wide range of items and that board members were not providing adequate oversight to protect the public’s interests.

“Even though the board may not be directly to blame for such rampant misuses of public funds, it was inherent in their fiduciary responsibilities to supervise Wendy Askins, the Living the Dream project, and to ensure that all development district funds were spent entirely for the benefit of those who are served by the district,” said L. Rene Brison, Assistant Director of Investigations for the Comptroller’s office.

“These types of abuses of the public trust are likely to outrage many citizens who live within the Upper Cumberland Development District boundaries – and rightfully so,” Comptroller Justin P. Wilson said. “Every public dollar that’s spent for the personal benefit of a government official is one less dollar that can be spent to benefit the people who need government services. I hope and trust that the Upper Cumberland Development District will put safeguards in place to guard against this type of waste and abuse in the future.”

To view the full report online, go to: http://www.comptroller.tn.gov/repository/ia/20121015UCCDaudit.pdf

To view photos of the contrasting accommodations of the UCDD’s executive director and the senior citizens who lived in the Living the Dream facility, go to: http://www.comptroller.tn.gov/repository/NR/20121015TheLivingTheDreamProject.pdf

UCDD Mansion Gets Dubious Honor in Beacon’s Pork Report

Last year, Wendy Askins was living the dream on taxpayer dollars. Now the former development agency official is winning prizes for it, too.

Askins used funds intended for the needy to support her own life of luxury, winning her the “Pork of the Year” title in an annual report by the Beacon Center.

The Mediterranean-style mansion that Askins purchased in rural Putnam County with money from the Upper Cumberland Development District was supposed to house poor senior citizens. But the agency’s former executive director moved in as well, outfitting the place with a sauna, chandelier and computer-controlled showers, as Nashville’s NewsChannel 5 reported.

Under the not-so-watchful eyes of elected officials charged with overseeing the agency, Askins reportedly put no fewer than five relatives on the district payroll, with a final cost to the public of $1.5 million, the report says.

The Nashville-based Beacon Center released its annual “Tennessee Pork Report” Tuesday, unveiling what the nonprofit think tank determined to be the most wasteful uses of state and local government money. The report’s authors pegged the district’s largesse as the “most egregious example of waste across the state,” prompting them to create a new title in its honor, the Pork of the Year.

Chris Thompson, mayor of Byrdstown and a member of the UCDD board, wasn’t surprised to find out that Askins’ fiasco had won.

“It’s kind of like government gone wild. If they’re going to misuse taxpayer money, they ought to be held accountable for it,” he said in a phone interview. Thompson has said he was not aware of the misspending until after certain meeting minutes showing the board OK’ing the spending were found to be bogus.

Askins and the UCDD are now reportedly under investigation by both state and federal authorities. Her lawyer told NewsChannel 5 in April there is no evidence she committed any crime, despite colleagues’ accusations of nepotism, checks that Askins wrote to herself after moving her own furniture into the mansion, and receipts showing she even paid for dog chow on the project’s account.

“There should be no way that an executive director can write a check to themselves,” said Jim Shulman, executive director of the Tennessee Commission on Aging and Disability, which held its own investigation of the Living the Dream project.

The case sparked resignations and hostility among members of the UCDD, and prompted doubts about how the state’s other development districts manage their funds.

“This isn’t an isolated incident. You have to be naïve to think that this is the only agency that this kind of thing is going on in, though maybe not as much as Living the Dream,” said Thompson.

Beacon Center executive director Justin Owen agreed, saying any of the state’s eight other development districts could be in line to win the porcine prize next year.

The Beacon Center, formerly known as the Tennessee Center for Policy Research, has published the Pork Report annually since 2004, basing its findings on government budgets, media reports, appropriations bills, state audits, and research by Beacon Center staff.

About Half a Billion in Gov’t Bacon ID’d by Beacon

In Tennessee, taxpayer money has been used to dabble in the movie-making business, prop up car companies, and promote country music heritage — in Virginia.

Such projects are cataloged in a new Pork Report tracking $468 million in waste and public malfeasance in the past year, $216 million worth of loin, butt and chops at the state level, the Center says.

Authored by the Nashville-based Beacon Center, the report identified more than $182 million in what the center calls “corporate welfare.” Furthermore, “politicians went hog wild” spending the citizenry’s resources on what Beacon Center president Justin Owen described as “taxpayer-funded tourist traps,” including a country music museum in Virginia and a planned water-and-snow theme park in Nashville.

“Many times politicians try to convince us that somehow their visions are grander and more wonderful,” said Ben Cunningham, a Tea Party leader and spokesman for Tennessee Tax Revolt who Tuesday joined Owen at a press conference on Capitol Hill. “Sometimes they even try to convince us that they are a cut above — morally and intellectually above the rest of us — and that their grand, good intentions are somehow grander and more wonderful than the good intentions of the citizenry.

“But in fact, they’re ordinary human beings just like you and I, and they have to be held to the same standards that everybody else is held to.”

This is the seventh year the Beacon Center, formerly known as the Tennessee Center for Policy Research, has published the Pork Report. TCPR was founded in 2004 by Johnson City-native Drew Johnson, who next month will succeed 70-year veteran Tennessee newspaperman Lee Anderson as an opinion page editor for the Chattanooga Times-Free Press.

State spending Beacon’s 2012 Pork Report identified as wasteful included:

  • $2 million in film incentives in 2012.
  • $1.5 million in economic incentives for GM to expand its plant in Spring Hill.
  • $266,200 to Volkswagen to put a sign, only visible from the air, atop its plant in Chattanooga.
  • $500,000 for a planned country music museum in Bristol on the Virginia side of the state line adjacent to Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey’s district.
  • $88.7 million for pre-kindergarten, which has “repeatedly failed to have a significant lasting impact on the education of Tennessee’s children.”

“This year state and local governments didn’t hold back when spending taxpayers’ money,” said Owen.

Political responsibility for much of the iffy spending and sketchy programs pegged in the report can be assigned to fiscally conservative-talking Republicans, who run state government and are not expected to lose their grip on power in this year’s legislative elections.

“Republicans spend just like Democrats do,” Owen said. “And when you’re spending someone else’s money, you have an incentive to spend it unwisely.”

Although the report points to spending made on Gov. Bill Haslam’s watch, the governor contends his administration is already on top of cutting out pork spending.

“I can promise you that government waste has got our full attention. Now, waste is obviously defined different ways by different folks,” Haslam told reporters Tuesday after defending spending on Pre-K, economic development and tourism.

“One of the value judgements you make every year in the budget is, what are you going to fund out of a lot of potential good things and what are you going to cut out of several things that people have an opinion about whether that’s critical or just nice to have.”

The Center thinks much remains in the latter category and says the state should adopt a law to return excess revenues to taxpayers and set up a state spending commission to root out waste.

The Center advocates strengthening a 1978 state constitutional provision meant to rein in growth. If the state is considering spending that exceeds the growth rate in personal income, lawmakers are required to take a separate vote on the amount beyond that cap. The Center says this vote should require a two-thirds approval, rather than the current majority, and that the measure of personal income growth should be replaced by a figure based on population growth plus inflation.