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NewsChannel 5 Investigates: UCDD

Scandal Leaves UCDD Stuck With Big Attorney Bills

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By Phil Williams
Chief Investigative Reporter

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The bills just keep getting bigger for the Upper Cumberland Development District in Cookeville.

That agency was shaken back in February by a scandal that ended up with its longtime executive director being forced to resign.

Now, UCDD officials are facing bills of almost a quarter of a million dollars from the lawyers they hired to investigate.

At the center of the investigation was that million-dollar Living the Dream facility into which longtime UCDD boss Wendy Askins sunk so much money.

Recently, NewsChannel 5 Investigates returned to Living the Dream and saw reminders about the extravagance that turned what was supposed to be a retirement home for needy seniors into a financial boondoggle.

For the first time, we got a peek inside what was once Wendy Askins' own living quarters -- a master bedroom with an HDTV and a wall-mounted electric fireplace.

Inside what she labeled the powder room, there was her $3,000 computer-controlled sauna shower.

Then there was a full-sized room that had been turned into walk-in closet like you've probably never seen.

We also found the used furniture that Askins appears to have bought from her own mother for $5,300, including a doll cabinet that displayed items that Askins apparently took with her when she left.

"Since the beginning of the thing, you've wondered what's around the next corner," said Byrdstown Mayor Chris Thompson, a member of the UCDD board.

That surprise around the next corner turned out to be an invoice from the Nashville law firm that the agency hired to conduct the internal investigation.

The total bill: $280,000. The law firm threw in a $70,000 discount, still leaving the agency owing $210,000.

"When I read it and I got down to the $210,000, I didn't read anymore," said Putnam County Executive Kim Blaylock. "I didn't look at it anymore because I was so upset."

The bills show five attorneys working on the UCDD investigation, charging as much as $395 an hour.

That's on top of another bill of $27,000 from the agency's regular lawyers.

All of that, to Thompson, raised all sorts of questions.

"Who was monitoring it?" he asked. "Who was kind of keeping up with the time that they were being billed -- and so on and so forth? And apparently nobody was."

It turns out that, back in February, chairman Mike Foster asked the board to authorize him to sign an engagement letter with the law firm -- even though he had failed to bring the letter to the meeting for them to see the prices.

"Pricing is in the letter -- I intended for y'all to look at it," Foster said.

No one apparently imagined the bills would ever run so high.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Blaylock, "Is there some concern about whether the agency can afford this?"

"Well, nobody wants a $210,000 lawyer bill," she said. "I'm sure we'll come up with the money, but had the bad decisions not been made, we wouldn't be sitting here talking about it, and that's sad."

Those attorney bills, which altogether total $237,000, are on top of the $900,000 that the lawyers say the agency stands to lose if it cannot turn Living the Dream into a profitable enterprise.

Several board members tell me they want to see if they can't negotiate an even bigger discount with the Nashville law firm.

The UCDD board meets again Thursday. That's when these attorney bills may be up for discussion.

E-mail: pwilliams@newschannel5.com

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