These are the original minutes for the February 2010 meeting of the Upper Cumberland Development District board, along with the altered minutes provided to NewsChannel 5 Investigates in response to a public records request.more>>
By Phil Williams
Chief Investigative Reporter
COOKEVILLE, Tenn. -- There are new questions about how some documents disappeared from a Cookeville-based government agency.
In another case, someone created bogus documents and tried to pass them off to NewsChannel 5 Investigates as real.
Many of those documents relate to the million-dollar house that the Upper Cumberland Development District executive director Wendy Askins hopes to turn into a retirement home for seniors, at the same time she's made it her own home.
The controversy fully erupted this past Friday when two local residents showed up to question the board that oversees the UCDD.
"This house seems like a lap of luxury project for very few people," local builder L.D. Herron told the board.
His brother, Terry Herron, added: "If you're going to spend this kind of money, you could help so many other people who are in need."
That exchange came after word leaked out about what our investigation had discovered on this 11-acre farm in rural Putnam County. UCDD officials poured more than a million dollars into a Mediterranean-style house to create a retirement home named Living the Dream.
"When they are wasting money, I can see it and I don't have to be an accountant or a lawyer or a genius to see it," Herron said afterwards.
But in the more than 4,000 pages of UCDD financial documents -- obtained by NewsChannel 5 Investigates under Tennessee's public records law -- we discovered even more questions.
For example, there were some some suspicious-looking receipts where Askins claimed to have reimbursed the agency for personal expenditures. When we asked to inspect the original receipt book, we found pages had been torn out.
That led UCDD's local lawyer to recommend that the agency hire a Nashville law firm.
Board chairman Mike Foster and vice chair John Pelham said those lawyers are also conducting an internal investigation.
"Should have to hire an attorney to investigate your own agency?" we asked the two men.
"Probably, not," Foster acknowledged. "But I think because of the implications that we felt like we should, probably."
In fact, our investigation found multiple Living the Dream checks that Askins wrote to herself for which those new attorneys say they cannot locate documentation.
"Absolutely, there's documentation of every check that's been written to me -- absolutely," Askins told us.
So why would the attorneys say there is no documentation for some of this?
"They don't have it," she answered.
But NewsChannel 5 Investigates had started checking the agency's dumpsters. Inside the trash, we found some of the very receipts we'd been looking for.
"Can you explain why we would have found receipts thrown into the trash behind your office here?" we asked Askins.
"I have no idea, I have no idea," she said. "I don't take the trash out."
Foster suspects someone may be trying to sabotage the executive director.
"Why would she want to discard receipts? Because it proves her point if she has them. So I don't think Ms. Askins is the one discarding them," he insisted.
Which brings us to the question of how Living the Dream got its money. Two years ago, Askins transferred the first $300,000 from UCDD money to Living the Dream. Since then, the agency has continued to pour money into the project.
Recently, the UCDD board called a special meeting to retroactively approve that $300,000 seed money - saying they could find no documentation in the agency's official minutes that they had ever actually voted on it.
But what the board did not know was that Askins' office had already given NewsChannel 5 Investigates a bogus set of minutes for February 2010, showing that the Living the Dream money had indeed been approved.
"That's what you have to talk to our board about," Askins said when we asked about that altered document.
"You are the one who gave it to us," we noted.
"I really didn't," she insisted. "I have not made any copies of any documents for you. Someone else has made those copies."
"So you are saying you have no responsibility for giving us bogus minutes?" we asked.
"Well, they weren't actually bogus. It was a mistake."
In fact, an audio recording of that meeting -- which Askins' office first denied existed -- contains no mention of the project.
We asked the UCDD board chair, "Are you concerned that fraudulent minutes are provided in response to a public records request?"
"I think, I don't know how fraudulent they are, but they were incorrect," Mike Foster answered.
"But they were not the minutes that had been approved," we pressed.
"Probably not, and I don't think they were," he admitted.
"Which means they are fraudulent."
"That may be."
But Foster says the board certainly intended for agency money to go to Living the Dream -- a decision that some critics argue has become a nightmare.
Even though Ms. Askins denies any involvement with the altered minutes, when the board held that emergency meeting, she asked them to adopt the exact same language that was in the bogus document her office gave us.