By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
Dream turns to nightmare
Placeholder Image

The Upper Cumberland Development District has hired an attorney to examine any wrongdoing within the government agency that serves 14 counties, including Warren County.
Hired is the Nashville law firm of Walker, Tipps and Malone PLC.
“The independent attorney is conducting a process, we will call it a process because it is not an investigation, into the situation,” said Warren County Executive and UCDD vice chairman John Pelham. “We are waiting on them to get back to us. I will say there are sides to this story that are not being made clear.”
The UCDD project called “Living the Dream” is at the center of a Channel 5 News investigation that has uncovered what appears to be widespread fraud by UCDD executive director Wendy Askins.
Living the Dream is an upscale retirement home for seniors on an 11-acre estate in rural Putnam County. UCDD executive director Wendy Askins lives there rent free and also houses her horses at a stable there, according to Channel 5.
The four-month media investigation also found Askins reportedly made out UCDD checks to herself or to cash for questionable reimbursements such as meals, drinks and gifts. Official documents were also altered, Channel 5 says, and Askins refused two interviews. She was finally captured on camera getting into her vehicle.
Pelham cited numerous areas that may look inappropriate, but had reasonable explanations.
“One of the things was she had declined an interview,” he said. “It may look like she had something to hide. The truth is our attorney advised her not to give interviews. She is still being told to refuse all interview requests.”
When it comes to the home, it is actually a foreclosure property that was purchased by UCDD specifically for this project, Pelham says.
“Everything was already in place when we purchased the property,” said Pelham. “The house and the fence, it was all there from the beginning. All we had to do was build small apartments behind the main house.”
Most of the main house will become a common area shared by residents. Pelham says Askins was living there in order to get the project off the ground.
“We had residents already there, but not many,” he said. “We needed someone there all day, everyday. Until we had enough people renting, there wasn’t enough money in the budget to hire a manager to live there 24-7. That’s why Wendy lived there. We needed someone there until we had the funds to hire someone.”
The facility, once complete, will offer approximately 20 rooms to residents. Rent will be based on income, between $500 and $2,000 per month.
When it comes to specific accusations leveled by Channel 5, such as Askins using funds in Living the Dream accounts to feed her animals that are being housed free of charge at the facility and writing checks to herself, those were not as easily explained.
“The attorney will be looking into those allegations,” Pelham said. “We will have to wait for the attorney to finish his process. That’s where we are on that at this moment.”
Channel 5’s investigation shows Pelham as an unknowing recipient of Askins’ lavish spending at the expense of taxpayers. Specifically, a $300 wedding present from Askins to Pelham’s daughter was later reimbursed to her from UCDD funds.
“I did not know the gift was paid for by the development district,” said Pelham. “I thought it was a gift from Wendy. She does things like that. I didn’t even know how much the present cost. It didn’t come with a price tag. When I was shown the receipt, I felt it was completely inappropriate. Then, to find out it was paid for by UCDD, I was shocked.”
Pelham says he didn’t see the gift as being out of place because he was not the only board member who received gifts.
“The staff, maybe I should say Wendy, does things like that for all of the board members. I’ve known them to give bridal showers when daughters of board members are getting married. I’m not saying I knew UCDD paid for it, but they just do things like that for board members.”
When it comes to allegations that thousands were spent on wining and dining at bars and restaurants, Pelham says he had no idea when or where those charges were generated.
“I don’t know where those charges came from,” he said. “There are receipts, so it must have happened. I can tell you we have a great group of people on the board and at least one of them is a preacher. I personally have no knowledge of those purchases.”
UCDD’s annual audit was recently complete. Several recommendations were made that hinted of possible problems existing in organization policies.
First on the list, the auditor recommends board members remove some of the power of the executive director, specifically the director’s ability to engage in projects without board approval.
“Consideration should be given for requiring board approval of special projects to be undertaken by the agency. At the present time, the executive director 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.”
Also recommended in the audit was a change in financial reimbursement to require more supporting documentation and establishing a policy manual for the director to follow.
The audit also recommended that “board of directors and the executive director should receive monthly financial statements so that board members and management are always aware of the agency’s current financial condition.”
The board adopted those recommendations last week. Prior to that, there were no policies in place for what is allowed and what isn’t allowed to be reimbursed, says Pelham.
“I don’t think there were any policies in place that dictate what gets reimbursed and what doesn’t,” he said. “We used the same policies that have been in place for years. The board adopted those recommendations last Friday. We will make those changes.”
Pelham says the attorney will also make suggestions to the board regarding changes.
“Our attorney will also be looking into additional changes that need to be made,” Pelham said. “We don’t have a specific time when his process will be complete. However, he said sooner rather than later. I would rather not guess on a time frame.”
Askins has been UCDD director since 1995. Her current salary is $111,240 a year. Board members are volunteers.