UCDD Board Puts Askins, Deputy On Administrative Leave
Feb 24, 2012 08:56 PM
By Phil Williams Chief Investigative Reporter
COOKEVILLE, Tenn. – The head of the Upper Cumberland Development District, along with her top assistant, were suspended Friday -- with some of the agency's board members demanding that executive director Wendy Askins be fired.
It all follows an exclusive NewsChannel 5 investigation into that million-dollar Living the Dream house, as well as all sorts of other extravagant spending and blatant nepotism.
During an emergency meeting, the UCDD board put Askins and her deputy, Larry Webb, on administrative leave for 30 days pending the outcome of an internal investigation. They'll get just two weeks pay. Both were stripped of their authority to write checks or take out any loans on behalf of the agency. They were also ordered to surrender their agency credit cards and gas cards. Plus, they've got to turn in their UCDD vehicles and keys to the offices.
The board also asked their lawyers to try to recover $300,000 put into Living the Dream without board approval, and they requested a state investigation of their own auditor.
"Wendy and Larry have been instructed to go on administrative leave for 30 days, effective 5 o'clock yesterday afternoon," Overton County Mayor Ron Cyrus told the board at the start of the hour-long meeting.
Cyrus is a member of a committee recently appointed to oversee an internal investigation.
But some didn't think that was enough -- especially after NewsChannel 5 Investigates exposed how agency funds had gone into that million-dollar Living the Dream House, which also became Wendy Askins' luxurious home.
"It's key for this board today to do the right thing -- and not administrative leave," said Byrdstown Mayor Chris Thompson. "She needs to be gone today."
Thompson said he was most concerned by the bogus minutes that Askins' office gave NewsChannel 5, claiming that the board itself has approved a $300,000 transfer to Living the Dream.
"It's black and white," Thompson said, waving a copy of the real and bogus minutes he obtained from our website.
"It's in the minutes, there's no denying it, none whatsoever. There's no way this board can deny that this is an administrative problem and that she does not need to come back and be over the Upper Cumberland Development District."
But UCDD lawyer Bob Walker told board members he needed 30 days to conduct an investigation that no one could question."
"Those minutes and the alteration of them is central to this investigation -- I can tell you that," Walker said.
UCDD board chairman Mike Foster supported the lawyer's recommendation.
"You don't make a case until you have all the facts -- and you don't get your warrants until you know what you're talking about," said Foster, who is Dekalb County executive.
Cyrus agreed that due process was important.
"If we fail to do that," he said, "I tell you what we are fixing to face. We'll face a lawsuit that is going to make every one of us in here quiver."
Thompson was not persuaded.
"She can sue or whatever," he responded. "I don't think that's going to matter. When it's on paper, the board needs to do something."
In the end, the board voted to go with the attorney's advice.
"My intention was to make a motion to separate her from the organization without pay, terminate her," Thompson said. "Of course, you can't win all the battles."
Foster said that "we see a lot of things differently -- the whole board does."
He said that our NewsChannel 5 investigation of Living the Dream, the nepotism and Askins' wild spending has opened the entire board's eyes.
"I think we did the right thing by taking the attorney's advice and handling it the way we did, and I feel better about that," Foster said.
The chairman cautioned his colleagues not to speculate about the final outcome of the internal investigation since this all could end up in a lawsuit.
As for the Living the Dream house, it wasn't clear from the meeting whether Askins would continue to live there.
However, NewsChannel 5 heard from the college students who were living in the much-smaller house she owns. They've told us they are being evicted.