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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.

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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.

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Curtiss, Burks Absent Most UCDD Board Meetings

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.