State Representative Mark Pody has called for a meeting of legislators in the Upper Cumberland to search out the facts concerning allegations against the Upper Cumberland Development District and the "Living the Dream" project.
Reports of lavish spending and possible wrongdoing surfaced this week in a NewsChannel 5 investigation and since then Representative Pody said he has been busy answering calls from concerned constituents. "My phone has been ringing off the hook," said Pody in a telephone interview with WJLE Friday. "I've had many people calling me with concerns about this. I'm getting all the legislators together that represent these fourteen counties and we're going to be meeting over the next couple of weeks. We'll be meeting with the (state) comptroller's office on Tuesday. We will be asking them to fill us in on what is going on from their point of view and any investigations they have going on so we can be brought up to date. We will then be meeting with congressional leaders including Congressman Diane Black's office. We want to know exactly what is going on. We will then be going to the board members who are actually running this (UCDD) to get their input as well so we have an understanding of what is going on. We're certainly going to be very prudent with our taxpayer's money. We're just not going to let it sit out there like that. Sometimes you just hear from one side and all we've heard from right now is just from the TV reports. We've also got to hear from the other side and see what is going on. I know we have good competent (UCDD) board members and we've got to hear from them. But the perception from the taxpayers is that this is not good. We owe it to the taxpayers to investigate this and see what is going on," said Representative Pody.
The legislators are not the only ones wanting to know more. State auditors are being brought in to investigate and the UCDD board has hired the Nashville law firm of Walker, Tipps, and Malone, PLC to look into the situation.
UCDD's executive director Wendy Askins is at the center of the controversy. Askins lives rent free at the Living the Dream facility and questions have been raised as to whether she has misappropriated funds. In the four month investigation by NewsChannel 5, Askins reportedly made out UCDD checks to herself or to cash for questionable reimbursements such as meals, drinks, and gifts. Minutes of a UCDD board meeting were also altered.
Living the Dream is an upscale retirement home for seniors on an eleven acre estate between Baxter and Cookeville in Putnam County. The home is reportedly foreclosure property which was purchased specifically for the purpose of developing a retirement facility for seniors. Almost everything was already in place when the property was bought, including the house and fence. Small apartments were later built behind the main house. Most of the main house is meant to become a common area shared by the residents. Askins was apparently living there to help get the project off the ground since the home only had a few residents renting and not enough money was being generated to hire a manager to stay there all the time. Once complete, the home is intended to serve approximately twenty residents with the rent ranging from $500 to $2,000 per month, based on their income.
DeKalb County Mayor Mike Foster, who is chairman of the UCDD, met with WJLE and the Smithville Review Friday morning. During the interview, Foster said he suspects there has been some "lavish" spending but can't comment in detail because of the investigation. "I do believe there has been some lavish spending but I'm on the committee that has been appointed to investigate this and until we have more details, I don't think we need to point the finger at anybody. That's one of the reasons some of my statements (to Channel 5) look kind of goofy because we were told immediately before doing the (TV) interview that we should not make any negative or even positive comments about anyone in particular or any behavior they might have had until the investigation is over. We've got two sets of accountants looking at it. The comptroller is looking at it and the attorneys are looking at it," said Foster.
Although the Living the Dream project comes under the umbrella of UCDD, Foster said a separate board oversees the operation of it and he knew very little about it. " Living the Dream is a separate corporation, a 501C3 that was set up to build housing for elderly and disabled people," said Foster. " It was set up to be a group home for residents who have to be ambulatory. They couldn't be in a wheel chair (and live there). Sometime in the last couple of years LTD bought the house that a contractor had built and had lived in while he was building it. He later became disabled and died. The house then became vacant for a while. It was sold at auction and the LTD corporation purchased that existing home which was a pretty good sized, elegant looking house, but in reality is not very big on the ground floor especially. It's a very moderate sized house. But it had a big white fence around it and it had a barn built back behind it and it looks very luxurious. They were asking $700,000 for it but it brought around $370,000 to $390,000 at public auction. So the LTD corporation bought that house to use as a home similar to like the Fiddlers Manor that we have here in Smithville and some of those kinds of retirement homes. Then they were going to build on living quarters, about twenty rooms, behind it with a connecting atrium that connects them. The main house would be used as a common quarters where all the people who live there would come into that area to eat and do community type functions," said Foster.
"The board that I'm on (UCDD), we never saw anything about it (Living the Dream) until 2011," said Foster. " There was a loan approved by the Cumberland Area Investment Corporation (CAIC). It was just approved by the committee that I am on. Other than that, we didn't know much about the operation of this other than some transfers and a couple of loans that they had made. We had seen pictures of the house. But there is another board, the LTD corporation which is a 501C3 that sits on that (oversees Living the Dream). The only thing that we as the UCDD board did was approve some of the money that had been approved by another board and just acknowledge it. That's really all we knew about it. But we (UCDD board) started hearing about these questions(concerning Living the Dream) in December. Channel 5 was there at a meeting we had one day and several of us went out there to see the house (Living the Dream). That was the first time that I had ever seen it. At that time, it (house) was still not complete. Its my understanding that the LTD board had received a transfer of $300,000 of unrestricted money to do the start up and they had borrowed something like $730,000 from a bank in Putnam County. I think they had also borrowed like $225,000 from CAIC to get it all up and going. It was to provide living quarters for about twenty two people. The total was to be about a million and three or four hundred thousand dollars and it would be self supporting. It would refund the debt itself," said Foster.
According to the NewsChannel 5 report, Askins transferred the first $300,000 from UCDD money to Living the Dream two years ago. Recently, the UCDD board called a special meeting to retroactively approve that $300,000 seed money, saying they could find no documentation in the agency's official minutes that the board had ever actually voted on it. But, according to the report, Askins' office had provided a bogus set of minutes (to Channel 5) for February 2010 showing that the Living the Dream money had been approved.
Foster said the revelation of the "bogus" minutes is troubling to him. "He (Channel 5 reporter) asked me before this interview if I had anything that concerned me. I said yes I am concerned about some minutes that appear to have been changed. We talked about specifically what minutes they were. I don't know who changed them (minutes) but there is a set of minutes that we approved and there is a different set of minutes that have been inserted," said Foster.
As for allegations that funds may have been spent on wining and dining and possibly at political events, Foster said he has not personally participated in any such UCDD activities. "I was not at any of those things. I have attended some functions at Delmonaco which is a winery, but its like a meeting place. In fact, I've been there probably three times with our county commission with the County Technical Advisory Service (CTAS). I guess they (CTAS) rent that and have the CTAS training sessions there. I have been there to that. There's also been some comments about me saying I had never seen any of the UCDD board members drink a lot. We're never in that situation. We're either at a meeting in the UCDD building or at Leslie Town Center or at maybe one of the counties here. I won't say never, but rarely are we ever in a setting to where there is alcohol," said Foster.
Channel 5's investigation further revealed purchases of gifts for UCDD board members by Askins, allegedly at the expense of taxpayers. Foster said he has never received any such gifts.
Foster said he is bothered how that all these revelations did not turn up in the annual UCDD audit which was recently released. According to Foster, the auditor noted no findings but made seven recommendations which have already been adopted by the UCDD board. Among them was a recommendation that "consideration be given for requiring board approval of special projects to be undertaken by the agency. At the present time, the executive director (Askins) has the authority to engage in these projects as long as they comply with the purpose of the development district as defined by Tennessee Code Annotated."
Foster said he expects that the board will also appoint a chief financial officer to give regular updates to the board in the future. "One of the things we have talked about that I think you will see happen, there will be a CFO appointed or hired. A financial officer that will handle all the financial aspects of this organization and report directly to the board. Right now we (UCDD) board members are there maybe an hour and a half every two to four months. By law, we have to meet four times a year. We're volunteers. We are a part time board and receive no pay. We serve a legal or technical purpose but we don't have access to any of these papers (financial documents). We just don't do it. We don't have time to. If there are as many gross things wrong as Channel 5 says, why didn't he (auditor) pick it up and why did he not tell us? If there's this many obvious things wrong, it should have been picked up and reported. That's all we have to go by. We can only go by what the audit says because we all have things to do in our home counties," said Foster.
UCDD serves Cannon, Clay, Cumberland, DeKalb, Fentress, Jackson, Macon, Overton, Pickett, Putnam, Smith, Van Buren, Warren, and White counties.
Foster said UCDD serves the counties in a variety of ways. "The people on the board I am on are primarily concerned with grants, trying to help the elderly, and trying to do things that benefit the individual communities. They apply for Community Development Block Grants. That's the main thing we're concerned with. Many of the other programs are under their own separate corporations and boards," said Foster.
According to the UCDD website, the agency has programs that serve the Older Adult population through the Area Agency on Aging and Disability. UCDD serves children and families with the Relative Caregiver Program and Special Projects Department. It meets infrastructure needs with the Community and Economic Development Team. The Housing Department addresses housing needs for underserved populations. Through the Research Department the agency seeks new and innovative programs to better serve communities. UCDD works to preserve the unique cultural and natural assets of the region through Cultural Resources Management. The Cumberland Area Investment Corporation helps develop small businesses, and it helps local communities plan transportation projects through Rural Planning Organizations.