A federal grand jury has indicted three former officials with the Upper Cumberland Development District as part of a wide-ranging government corruption scandal.
The Cookeville-based agency represents the Upper Cumberland area, which included Warren County.
Former UCDD executive director Wendy Askins and former assistant director Larry Webb are charged with conspiracy, embezzlement, bank fraud, money laundering and making false statements in connection with money diverted to a project called Living the Dream, an upscale home that was meant for seniors that Askins used as her personal residence.
DeKalb County Mayor Mike Foster, who once served as chairman of the UCDD board of directors, was also indicted along with Askins for making false statements to the agency’s board during a January 2012 meeting about the transfer of federal funds to the property.
The UCDD board of directors was responsible for overseeing the actions of Askins as the executive director to ensure corruption did not take place. However, Askins often treated board members to dinners and expensive gifts – at the expense of taxpayers – and little oversight actually occurred.
The 16-count indictment follows a scandal first exposed by NewsChannel 5 investigative reporter Phil Williams.
“Once again, we will reiterate that those who seek to profit by defrauding the taxpaying public and misusing government funds will be held accountable,” said Acting U.S. Attorney David Rivera in a statement. “The personal gain and lavish lifestyles gained by fraudulent schemes will eventually come to an end.”
At the center of the allegations, the indictment says, is a conspiracy to “convert over $670,000 of government funds,” along with securing loans from two banks, for Living the Dream. That facility, according to the federal grand jury, was “owned by Askins and Webb.”
After NewsChannel 5 began investigating, “Askins and Webb directed other individuals to alter official minutes of UCDD meetings and to delete audio recordings of meetings,” the indictment says.
“Askins advised Webb and another that they should get their stories straight before a UCDD board meeting and prepared a false statement which was read to the meeting” by Foster.
Foster, coached by Webb, read the statement to cover up for a bogus set of minutes that had been provided to NewsChannel 5 Investigates, claiming the UCDD board had approved the transfer of $300,000 of agency funds to Living the Dream.
Askins and Webb were placed on administrative leave in February 2012, pending an internal investigation, less than two weeks after NewsChannel 5's stories first began airing.
If convicted, Askins faces up to 225 years in federal prison and $6.75 million in fines. Webb faces 220 years and $6.5 million in fines. Foster faces five years in prison and a $250,000 fine if convicted on the one count.