published Thursday, September 27th, 2012

Upper Cumberland Human Resource Agency racks up big bills

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    Blake Fontenay, a spokesman for the Republican Secretary of State
    Photo by John Rawlston /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

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BY THE NUMBERS

The following amounts were expenses for Upper Cumberland Human Resource Agency board members, employees and guests attending events or gatherings in Washington, D.C. and Nashville and Cookeville, Tenn. Each of the entries below is an exhibit in the audit.

* $3,384.56: Tab for 30 people for food and drinks, at 1789 Restaurant, Washington, D.C., on March 30, 2011.

* $4,811.79: Thirty-four-person tab for food and drinks at Oceanaire Seafood Room restaurant in Washington on March 29, 2011.

* $2,361.19: Tab for 25 for food and drinks, at Morton's Steakhouse in Nashville on Feb. 1, 2010.

* $806.68: Tab for seven, including alcohol, at Morton's Steakhouse in Nashville on Aug. 24, 2010; and a $84.67 tab for an unknown size party's bar bill at that restaurant earlier the same evening.

* $74.59: Bill from Crossroads Wine and Spirits in Baxter, Tenn., for four bottles of wine on Aug. 7, 2010, and $73.99 for eight bottles of wine on Sept. 1, 2010.

* $9,734: Bill from Spankies Catering for the agency's annual meeting in Cookeville for 314 guests on Oct. 22, 2010.

* $8,524.51: Catering bill for 500 guests at a staff holiday party at the Leslie Town Center on Dec. 10, 2010.

Source: Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury

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

Taxpayers were stuck with a $2 million tab for the Upper Cumberland Human Resource Agency's board members, workers and guests to pay for travel expenses, meals, entertainment, electronics and subsidies for a resort the agency owned, a state audit shows.

The tip alone was $580 for one $4,800 dinner for 34 at Washington, D.C.'s Oceanaire Seafood Room that included more than 30 alcoholic beverages, the state Comptroller's Office audit found.

Agency board Chairman Michael Nesbitt and Vice Chairman Dale Reagan said the audit of the period from Jan. 1, 2010, to Dec. 31, 2011 was done at the board's request. Nesbitt said there were "some issues that we knew we had for a lot of years" but there "was never a right time to deal with it."

Comptroller's office spokesman Blake Fontenay said auditors "would prefer not to comment" on what triggered the review that began in 2011.

The audit involved the period when the agency was led by executive director Phyllis Bennett, who died in June, records show. The agency serves 14 counties in the Cumberland Plateau region, including Warren, Cumberland, Cannon and Van Buren, and is funded mostly with state and federal money. It provides meals, rural transportation, drug abuse counseling, job training and emergency assistance, among other services.

Audit findings show that on an annual Washington, D.C., trip in March 2011, taxpayers paid for 30-person group meals at the Capital Grille and the 1789 Restaurant, a performance at Ford's Theatre, a visit to Madame Tussauds Wax Museum and to Mount Vernon, and transportation to and from the events, tallying a total bill of $59,624.

On several trips to Nashville, agency officials charged meals and alcohol on agency credit cards to entertain board members and legislators, including a $2,361 meal and drinks at Morton's Steakhouse for 25 people in February 2010. In August 2010, seven guests were treated to $85 worth of pre-dinner cocktails and an $807 dinner at Morton's.

Auditors also said the agency spent more than $1.6 million in subsidies since 1995 on its training complex and resort property, $123,000 for gift certificates for training events, more than $100,000 a year on 160 mobile communication devices -- including OnStar subscriptions -- for employees, and thousands of dollars for "extravagant meals and entertainment."

The agency is reining in spending, Nesbitt said Wednesday.

Nesbitt, a pastor, said he never drank alcohol and made it known that he disapproved of the drinking at the events. He said he was unaware of the costs at the time.

"But I went and ate dinner with them," he said in retrospect. "I didn't sign the receipt, but we could've had a copy of the receipts."

After seeing the audit, "my thought was that a lot of that money could have been used to feed the hungry and house the unfortunate," he said.

"I'm proud of where we're headed. But I'm not proud of what came out in the audit."

Reagan said Wednesday that he had not read the audit and was unsure whether he attended any of the meetings cited. He said he had been on "two or three" trips to Washington during his term.

"I knew that it was costing, but that's ridiculous and I'll be the first one to tell you that," he said of the $60,000 March trip to Washington.

"It is a regretful thing that this has happened, and we've got to turn it around," he said, "and I feel confident that that's what's taking place now."

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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