UCDD executive director Wendy Askins gave a radio interview on Friday, Feb. 17, to Cookeville talk show host Dwight Henry of WHUB-AM. Most of the conversation focused on questions raised by NewsChannel 5 Investigates regarding Living the Dream, that million-dollar house that was supposed to become a retirement home for needy seniors, but also became her home.
Here are some of the claims made by Askins:
ASKINS: "Every penny in the project is non-government money."
The Upper Cumberland Development District transferred $300,000 from its accounts to Living the Dream under some questionable circumstances. Ms. Askins' office provided a bogus set of minutes showing that the money had been approved in February 2010, although audio recordings show it was never discussed. In January 2012, the UCDD board retroactively approved that transfer.
Askins argues that the $300,000 is "unrestricted money," not government money. The agency receives fees for administering various federal and state government programs, but she argues that the fees from those government programs are not "government money" or "tax dollars." As a result, there are no restrictions, she claims. The UCDD was set up by the legislature to create jobs and help the poor. UCDD also holds golf tournaments, fashion shows and other fund-raising events where contributors are led to believe that their money is going to programs for the needy. Even some board members concede that, as a public agency, all of the money should be considered "public money."
Living the Dream Independent Living for Seniors Inc., a non-profit corporation created by Askins and her deputy Larry Webb, secured a $731,000 loan from the Bank of Putnam County – one of the main institutions where the UCDD does its banking.
With the backing of Askins and Webb, another UCDD-affiliated entity, the Cumberland Area Investment Corporation (CAIC), provided a $225,000 loan to the Living the Dream project. According to the UCDD website, CAIC provides loans through private lenders. Some of those loans are backed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rural Development and the U.S. Department of Commerce-Economic Development Administration (EDA).
Askins and Webb also arranged for yet another UCDD-affiliated entity, the Cumberland Regional Development Corporation (CRDC), to take out a $300,000 line of credit. It appears that UCDD funds were used as collateral. According to the UCDD website, CRDC works with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Tennessee Housing Development Agency, the Federal Home Loan Bank and USDA Rural Development to create low cost affordable housing.
ASKINS: "We've had over $50,000 in cash donated to this project.... If you think the chandelier is too elaborate, well, money was given to offset that chandelier. If you think the shower is too elaborate, same thing happened there."
NewsChannel 5 Investigates has requested evidence of such donations to Living the Dream, which Ms. Askins has not provided.
ASKINS: "I've done all the painting. I did all the decorating."
ASKINS: "Actually, the furniture was bought for a project. It was bought for another project that we thought would already completed by now."
NewsChannel 5 Investigates obtained receipts showing Askins paid herself almost $10,000 for a number of items, including furniture. That's just one of a number of checks she wrote to herself or to cash. A Facebook picture shows the furniture in her house prior to moving to Living the Dream. Video from a December tour shows that same furniture at Living the Dream. It is not clear why she would have bought furniture for a UCDD project and then put it in her own house.
ASKINS: "Every check that's been written to me has attached receipts. Nobody seems to be that interested in the attached receipts."
NewsChannel 5 Investigates filed public records requests, asking for specific documentation for a number of checks written to Ms. Askins. A law firm hired by the UCDD board to respond to NewsChannel 5's public records requests and to conduct an internal investigation reported the following in a January 12, 2012, letter: "It does not appear that Living the Dream kept detailed records matching the receipts to these particular checks."
Following that letter, NewsChannel 5 did inspect a large binder filled with various receipts. However, those receipts could not be matched to specific checks.
An invoice to which receipts appeared to have been once attached was found in UCDD's dumpster without the referenced receipts.
ASKINS: "L.A. Management was dissolved somewhere approximately the end of August, first of September.... L.A. Management was really designed to work with our housing facilities to provide services. After we got involved in it, we felt like it could look like a conflict of interest, and we immediately dissolved it because we just didn't want that to be anything that the public would perceive as being a conflict."
Incorporation documents for L.A. Management were filed in June 12, 2010. It was not dissolved until Nov. 3, 2011. That was after NewsChannel 5 Investigates began asking questions about it. Sources say that, at that point, UCDD lawyers instructed Askins to shut down L.A. Management.
ASKINS: "Tennessee Commission on Aging and Disability, I will add that, they did come in and they did an unannounced visit and then they came in and did their regular monitoring visit -- and we just haven't heard anything from that."
As NewsChannel 5 Investigates first reported, TCAD has already issued a report from that unannounced visit. It details a "questionable business arrangement" between Living the Dream. It also finds that Askins and other UCDD officials had numerous conflicts of interests.