Upper Cumberland Development District executive director Wendy Askins could be suspended today when the agency’s Executive Committee has a specially called meeting to discuss allegations of widespread corruption.
The meeting is set for 10 a.m. at the UCDD office in Cookeville.
“It may be too early to ask for her resignation, but it’s not too early to suspend her without pay,” said state Rep. Charles Curtiss, who is a member of the Executive Committee. “It’s certainly not too soon to suspend her.”
Askins is under investigation for misusing funds at the 14-county state government agency which serves Warren County. UCDD is an agency intended to help the poor and appropriate grant money for government projects.
Askins is accused of reimbursing herself for personal purchases and making other checks out to cash, living in a $1 million mansion intended to be a retirement center, doctoring meeting minutes for an open records request, and violating nepotism rules by employing four family members, including both her parents, and giving all four state vehicles with gas cards.
Many other instances of fraud have been leveled.
Among those is Askins was reimbursed $300 from UCDD funds for a silver platter she gave as a wedding gift to Warren County Executive John Pelham’s daughter. A receipt shows Askins was reimbursed for the $300 from UCDD.
“I haven’t been asked to repay the money and I don’t know if I will be, but I’m going to repay it because it’s the right thing to do,” said Pelham. “I have the check right here in my pocket. I’ve been waiting on my next trip to Cookeville.”
Curtiss admits the charges against Askins appear overwhelming, but he cautioned everyone to wait for the results of two separate state investigations before reaching a final conclusion. He said the News Channel 5 investigative series which brought most of this abuse to light has been misleading before.
“If you recall, it’s the same TV station that went after state Sen. Jerry Cooper and had him going to the state penitentiary,” said Curtiss. “But when he went to trial, he was found not guilty.”
The state comptroller is conducting an investigation. A separate investigation is being done by a Nashville attorney hired by the UCDD board.
Curtiss said two mistakes gave this type of corruption a chance to manifest. First, the agency was able to hire a private firm to conduct its annual audits. Second, the boss, in this case Askins, had the final say over day-to-day financial matters with minimal oversight.
“I’m not going to say an independent CPA firm is incompetent, but there’s a big difference in doing an audit for a private business and auditing a government agency,” said Curtiss. “You have to be much more careful in what you look for.
“We also need new framework in place with safeguards put in so this doesn’t happen again. I think we need to have someone in charge of all disbursements who pays the bills and reports directly to the board. They are not accountable to anyone else but the board.”
Curtiss said he has an out-of-state meeting scheduled today and cannot be in attendance. McMinnville Mayor Norman Rone, also on the Executive Committee, says he will not be able to attend.
Pelham, who serves as UCDD vice chairman, and Tennessee Technology Center employee Marvin Lusk are the other two local representatives on the Executive Committee. They both say they will attend, with Pelham giving the Executive Committee a $300 check.