This is the check register for Living the Dream's operational account, obtained under Tennessee's public records law.more>>
By Phil Williams Chief Investigative Reporter
COOKEVILLE, Tenn. -- A four-month NewsChannel 5 investigation has uncovered a government-subsidized project like you've probably never seen.
The project may have begun with good intentions, but it now has some folks asking whether the woman behind it is living the dream.
The money came from a Cookeville-based agency, the Upper Cumberland Development District (UCDD), that's supposed to serve a large chunk of Middle Tennessee. The agency was created by the legislature to create jobs and help the poor.
Yet UCDD executive director Wendy Askins has poured almost a million and a half dollars into an elegant Mediterranean-style home, located on an 11-acre horse farm in rural Putnam County. Her goal: to create a retirement home for seniors that she named "Living the Dream."
"This area here is where the residents eat," Askins said back before Christmas as she led a tour of the house that contains some of the finest touches.
For the elderly residents like Linda Phillips, UCDD built small apartments back behind the main house.
"Everybody's nice here -- I enjoy living here," Phillips said at the time.
But the main building has also become Askins' home, complete with family photos. Her family Christmas portrait was snapped there. So was her daughter's graduation photo. Her daughter's graduation party was there. And Facebook pictures show her family enjoying the house at Christmas
An ad purchased by UCDD boasts, "She is so happy to be living in the country again and being able to offer this to seniors."
"Were you trying to build your own dream house?" we asked Askins.
"Absolutely not," she replied.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates recently caught up with Askins after she twice backed out of interviews -- interviews to answer questions we discovered within more than 4,000 pages of UCDD's financial documents, questions about tens of thousands of dollars in checks she wrote to herself, questions about purchases of luxury items most of us can only dream of.
"When you look around, you don't see a waste of money?" we asked Dekalb County Executive Mike Foster, who chairs the UCDD board.
"I don't," he answered.
Foster and Warren County Executive John Pelham, who serves as vice chair, say they never saw any hint of anything improper about Living the Dream.
"It looks like that she's treating it like her house," we noted.
"Well," Foster said, "I've heard her say that she wishes it would hurry up and get completed so she could move back to her house."
It's the same thing she told us: "I still have my home. I'm going back to my home."
But we discovered her house is actually rented out.
"They are taking care of it actually until I get home," she told NewsChannel 5 Investigates.
"So you're essentially living rent-free at Living the Dream?" we asked.
"I'm working at Living the Dream," she insisted. "I have over 6,000 hours of nothing but volunteer time because it does not cash flow at this time."
Coincidentally, Living the Dream is also the perfect place to stable the family horses -- again, free of charge -- part of what Askins calls a therapeutic petting zoo.
Then, there's the check she wrote out of Living the Dream accounts, paying herself almost $10,000 for furniture she moved out of her house.
An HDTV accessory attached to the wall at Living the Dream once hung in her house, a Facebook photo shows. Receipts indicate where she used Living the Dream funds to pay herself the full price, $1,500.
Furniture seen in that same Facebook photo is also now at Living the Dream. Documents show where Askins apparently tried to estimate the value of her old furniture, again paying herself full price.
"You sold some second-hand...," we started to ask.
"Some of it, I did, yes," she interjected.
"Some second-hand furniture, you sold to the facility?"
"I did -- to get the project started up."
While Askins insisted she's been frugal, up a custom-made, two-sided staircase -- which itself cost $25,000 -- we discovered what's essentially a studio apartment where her daughter lives.
There's a 46-inch HDTV.
Inside the bathroom, a six-jet steam shower with a hardwood floor. Receipts show it cost $3,300.
Other receipts show:
A fancy computer-controlled sauna/shower: another $3,000.
An elegant crystal chrome chandelier: $1,600.
A two-sided electric fireplace: also $1,600.
Then there are the fountains: one $2,300, another ordered for $6,600.
"It looks like that you may have been personally profiting," we noted to Askins.
"Absolutely not," she said. "I have given that project over $10,000."
But in those receipts, we also found tens of thousands of dollars in other checks that Askins wrote out of Living the Dream accounts either to cash or to herself. Some were for groceries. Several show purchases of dog food.
"The dogs are your pets?" we asked.
"The dogs are mine," she acknowledged. "They are such a part...."
"Why can you not buy your own dog food?"
Her dogs, her horses, her furniture, even her family - but Askins insists this million-dollar house is not her dream.
Our investigation has already triggered an investigation by the Tennessee Commission on Aging and Disability, as well as state auditors.
And it turns out that, despite the million-plus dollars, the facility has not been able to get a state license.
Now, UCDD officials say they're starting to add residents, betting they won't need a license.
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