published Friday, October 19th, 2012

Upper Cumberland Development District ex-director misspent lavishly, state audit finds

AUDIT FINDINGS

A state Comptroller's Office audit reports that former Upper Cumberland Development District Executive Director Wendy Askins:

• Falsified records to get reimbursements totaling $2,824;

• Used district funds to reimburse herself at least $1,229 for personal expenses;

• Authorized the alteration of meeting records to indicate board authorization of a transaction that received no authorization;

• Paid herself at least $9,569 for used furniture and other personal property as well as paying family members for secondhand items purchased on behalf of the district;

• Deposited a donation specifically intended for the Meals on Wheels program into the Living the Dream project bank account;

• Made a $285,000 payment from the district to the Living the Dream project without board approval;

AUDIT FINDINGS

• The board of directors failed to exercise adequate oversight of reimbursements to Askins that totaled $144,000 in a 30-month period;

• District vehicles were not properly marked as government-owned and were used by management and staff for personal benefit;

• District funds were used for expensive meals, alcoholic beverages and other luxury items;

• District funds were used for nonessential cellphone charges, including premium texting and music downloads;

• District files contained inadequate documentation for credit card purchases;

• Preferential treatment was given to Living the Dream residents and a private company owned by Askins.

Source: Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury

INVESTIGATIVE AUDIT REPORT Upper Cumberland Human Resource Agency
INVESTIGATIVE AUDIT REPORT Upper Cumberland Human  Resource Agency

The only people "living the dream" at a senior living facility with that name in Cookeville, Tenn., were former Upper Cumberland Development District Executive Director Wendy Askins and her daughter, state auditors report.

A state Comptroller's Office audit released this week blasts Askins for spending thousands in taxpayer dollars on lavish improvements to the main living quarters where she and her adult daughter, Anna, lived rent-free at the Living the Dream project. Among their luxuries were steam showers costing more than $6,000; a double-sided fireplace that cost more than $1,500; and a $25,000 curved staircase from the downstairs portion of the house where Askins lived to the upstairs where her daughter lived.

Those arrangements differed markedly from the accommodations provided the handful of seniors at Living the Dream after it opened, according to auditors. There are a dozen available dormlike, utilitarian apartments for seniors at the 6,600-square-foot facility, but as of Thursday only five seniors actually lived there, according to new Executive Director Mark Farley.

Once completed, the facility will house about 30 seniors, he said.

The report, which reviewed the period from Jan. 1, 2010, to Dec. 31, 2011, also rips the district's board of directors, which "failed to uphold its duty to follow sound business and accounting practices" to make sure expenditures were appropriate and in the best interest of the public.

The report states that Askins had "essentially unfettered control" over funding for Living the Dream, which had tallied a price tag of almost $1.4 million by last February.

Other findings note Askins used public money to buy items such as furniture, televisions, exercise equipment, a 3-D-capable computer and 3-D glasses, records show.

Attempts to reach Askins, who resigned her position in March after being put on administrative leave in February, were unsuccessful Thursday. No criminal charges have been filed against her or her daughter.

Farley said the "Living the Dream" property since has been dubbed Twin Magnolias.

Upper Cumberland Development District board Chairman Mike Gannon said Thursday that officials took corrective action, hired a new executive director and accountant and are trying to look ahead rather than dwell on past problems.

"We're just a part-time board and it's impossible for us to keep a tab on every little thing and, obviously, there were some things that happened that the board didn't know about," said Gannon, who was a general board member during the audit period.

Gannon, who also is Cannon County executive, said corrective actions started eight to 10 months ago and now are complete or nearly complete.

"In our defense, once we were informed of it, it's been taken care of," he said.

The Upper Cumberland Development District -- created to promote economic growth and development and to serve those in need within each district -- serves 14 counties and a population of nearly 340,000 people, according to information on the district website.

It serves Cannon, Clay, Cumberland, DeKalb, Fentress, Jackson, Macon, Overton, Pickett, Putnam, Smith, Van Buren, Warren and White counties. Most of its funding comes from state and federal governments.

Gannon said none of the board members, including himself, were aware of inappropriate spending by Askins.

"We had a CPA looking after that for us, and we went by the report that he gave to us," he said. Those reports "looked normal," he said.

The district now wants to keep the facility open and fill it with at least 12 residents to make it profitable, Gannon said.

Board member and state Sen. Charlotte Burks, D-Monterey, called the situation "sad," but said the board had been left in the dark by its accountant and the executive director. Board members put their trust in Askins because she was bringing in a lot of grant money and had successful programs, Burks said.

"You bring all this money in, and people just don't question things," she said.

Burks said she had not visited the facility, but she thought photos by Comptroller's Office officials showed "very extravagant" spending on Askins' home that could have gone toward expanding the seniors' quarters.

The Development District audit comes on the heels of another scathing audit released last month on the Upper Cumberland Human Resource Agency, which auditors say stuck taxpayers with a $2 million tab for board members, employees and guests to pay for travel expenses, meals, entertainment, electronics and subsidies for a training complex and resort the agency owned.

Many of the same people are on the boards for both agencies.

about Ben Benton...

Ben Benton is a news reporter at the Chattanooga Times Free Press. He covers Southeast Tennessee and previously covered North Georgia education. Ben has worked at the Times Free Press since November 2005, first covering Bledsoe and Sequatchie counties and later adding Marion, Grundy and other counties in the northern and western edges of the region to his coverage. He was born and raised in Cleveland, Tenn., a graduate of Bradley Central High School. Benton ...

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