NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Another Cookeville-based government agency faces serious questions about how it spent tens of thousands of dollars of the public's money.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates first uncovered serious problems inside the Upper Cumberland Development District.
Now, a sister agency -- the Upper Cumberland Human Resource Agency -- is the subject of a scathing state audit just released today. That agency is overseen by the same board of local elected officials who control UCDD.
"Whether money comes from federal, state or local government, it is all public money that should be spent for proper public purposes," state Comptroller Justin P. Wilson said in a news release.
"When taxpayers see their money being spent for the purposes outlined in this audit, it erodes their faith in government."
UCHRA operates a number of programs designed to help the poor in the 14-county Upper Cumberland region.
Among the findings of the audit:
Agency officials spent nearly $60,000 for some 30 people on an annual trip to Washington, D.C.
Included in that: $1,300 for agency officials and their guests to attend a performance at Ford's Theatre. There was $289 in agency money to visit a wax museum, plus another $284 for tickets to Mount Vernon.
Plus, there was all sorts of fine dining -- including some $43,00 at Washington's exclusive Oceanairre Seafood Room. The bill includes filet mignon, yellow fin tuna and alcoholic beverages of all kinds.
"We don't think that's an appropriate use of taxpayer dollars to purchase alcohol -- period," said Richard Norment, assistant to the comptroller and the head of the Department of Audit.
Auditors also found that agency staff made frequent trips to Nashville, charging expensive meals and alcoholic beverages on agency credit cards.
They used public funds to occasionally purchase alcohol from liquor stores.
On top of that, they spent $123,000 on gift certificates for training events.
"The bigger picture," Norment said, "is obviously to make sure that everybody else gets the message that this type of abuse and waste of taxpayer dollars is not acceptable."
A lot of these expenditures were first discovered after longtime executive director Phyllis Bennett took leave after being diagnosed with cancer.
She has since passed away, and a new director has been chosen. Board members have been saying they believe they finally have this agency back on track.
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