This receipts show expenditures out of the main accounts for the Upper Cumberland Development District. Included are charges for catering political fundraisers, alcohol and expensive dinners and gifts.more>>
By Phil Williams Chief Investigative Reporter
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- First, there was that million-dollar house financed by a Cookeville-based agency that's supposed to create jobs and help the poor.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates has uncovered even more incredible spending at the Upper Cumberland Development District.
But we discovered, it's spending that does nothing for the people who really need the help.
"There's a lot of air that comes in that back side and everything," White County resident Fred Goodson said, pointing to his dilapidated house.
Everywhere Goodson looks, his home is falling apart.
"It's hard to keep up anything by yourself with no money coming in to amount to anything," he said.
Goodson and his 85-year-old mother thought they actually might have a chance to get a new home, thanks to a state program administered by UCDD.
Then, he heard from a UCDD official that there was no money to help him.
"I felt like he lied to us, as simple as that," he said.
Yet, the agency did find money to buy a $2,000, 3D gaming computer. They even bought the 3D glasses to go with it.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked UCDD executive director Wendy Askins, "Why does your office need a 3D computer with 3D glasses?"
"I can't answer that question," she said.
We also had other questions for Askins, questions we discovered in more than 4,000 pages of financial documents obtained from the agency.
For example, we found hundreds of dollars spent at Putnam County's Delmonaco winery, including bottles of wines supposedly purchased as gifts as well as rental of the facility's marbled meeting space.
A credit card receipt from July 2010 shows a DelMonaco purchase for $251 -- a handwritten note claims it was for a "vintage gift box for golf tournament" although there's no proof.
But it came the same day Askins was involved in a fundraiser there for Republican candidate for governor Zach Wamp.
There was also another event at Delmonaco. Askins paid the caterer $2,800, and UCDD reimbursed her.
Askins' handwritten note claims she "co-sponsored banquet for young athletes in the U.C. and 4-H events."
"We actually do a lot of work with our 4H students and our FFA students and that was our part of the sponsorship," she told NewsChannel 5 Investigates.
But when we went to see the caterer, she told us it was really a fundraiser for then-state Rep. Henry Fincher featuring Gov. Phil Bredesen.
"There were a roomful of young people, FFA and 4H," Askins told us.
"But this was a political event, this was a political fundraiser," we noted.
"I'm not sure if it was a fundraiser or not," she claimed, "but I do know the governor was there and we had a lot of young people there."
Fincher confirms it was a campaign fundraiser. In fact, he says Askins was one of the organizers.
Board chair Mike Foster and vice chair John Pelham insist they never knew about that.
"Do you approve of agency funds being used for political fundraisers?" we asked.
"No, short answer, no," Foster said.
There's also thousands of dollars spent in bars and fancy restaurants, many of the expenditures for trips to conferences attended by board members.
One receipt from Nashville's Jimmy Kelly's restaurant was printed in the bar at 12:19 a.m. The $56 charge is listed on Askins' report as "dinner."
"Do board members know that agency funds are being used to pay for alcohol?" NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked.
"Well, it's their per diem."
Askins claims many of alcohol purchases involved not only staff, but also members of the UCDD board, a group of local elected officials who are supposed to oversee the agency.
Among the bills: an almost $300 tab at Nashville's Flying Saucer. It included two Merlots, nine Crown Royal whiskeys and 13 beers.
"I have never seen anybody on this board drinking very much, if any," Foster said.
But Askins has also spent thousands of dollars in agency money bestowing gifts on those board members to whom she reports: $2,000 for appreciation gift bags and candles, $1,200 for country hams, even jewelry.
"Whatever we paid for, it's not out of state or federal money," she said. "This is money that we generate through projects that we administer."
"This is public money," we noted.
"It has nothing to do with taxpayers money or fundraising. We do a lot of fundraising."
There was even a $300 silver tray as a wedding present for John Pelham's daughter.
"I wasn't aware of the cost of that at all," Pelham said.
Did he think it was a personal gift from Ms. Askins?
"Yes, sir," he answered.
In fact, the invoice appears to show that the card read, "Best wishes, Wendy Askins." She later added to the invoice copy: "and U-C-D-D staff."
"With all the poor people out there who need help, could this money have been better spent than buying your daughter a silver tray?" NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Pelham.
"Yes, sir, absolutely," he said.
But Askins doesn't seem to agree.
"Is there anything you regret?" we asked.
She answered emphatically, "Absolutely not."
The board chair and vice chair they said they were not ready to criticize Ms. Askins for her agency's spending.
They've hired a Nashville law firm to conduct an internal investigation, although it's not clear that the law firm is focused on these issues.
This type of thing has never been flagged in any audit that we've seen. In fact, the most recent audit just presented was clean, although -- as our story was about the aired -- the auditor gave some recommendations, including big ideas like keeping receipts.
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