published Friday, September 27th, 2013

Three indicted in scheme at 'Living the Dream' senior living facility in Cookeville, Tenn.

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    The Tennessee Comptroller's office documented some of the lavish improvements taxpayers paid for at the main house where former Upper Cumberland Development District executive director Wendy Askins and her daughter lived at the "Living the Dream" independent, assisted-living facility in Cookeville, Tenn.

A woman accused of misspending government funds at a senior living facility called "Living the Dream" in Cookeville, Tenn., could wind up living in prison if convicted of theft and fraud charges leveled against her by a federal grand jury.

Wendy Askins, 53, the former executive director of the Upper Cumberland Development District, could serve 225 years in prison and pay a $6.7 million fine if she gets the maximum sentences for alleged crimes such as misusing more than $670,000 in government funds.

The money was intended for the development district, but the 16-page grand jury indictment filed Wednesday states that Askins conspired with the district's then-deputy director, Larry Gene Webb, 64, of Smithville, Tenn., to spend it on the Living the Dream property west of Cookeville, which federal prosecutors say the pair owned.

Askins spent thousands in taxpayer dollars on lavish improvements to the main living quarters where she and her adult daughter, Anna, lived rent-free, according to a state comptroller's office audit released in October 2012. 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 where Askins lived to the upstairs where her daughter lived. The audit found that Askins used public money to buy items such as furniture, televisions, exercise equipment, a 3-D-capable computer and 3-D glasses.

Those arrangements differed markedly from the utilitarian apartments for seniors at the facility at 1125 Deer Creek Drive, which since has been renamed Twin Magnolia Farms.

Askins and Webb incorporated Living the Dream in their own names and caused money to be transferred from the development district to the facility without seeking the approval of the development district's board of directors, a U.S. Department of Justice news release states.

They also got $1 million worth of bank loans and lines of credit, the release states, to renovate the property by using development district bank accounts and property as collateral.

Webb faces up to 220 years in prison and a $6.5 million fine.

The grand jury also indicted Billy Michael Foster, 66, the mayor of DeKalb County, Tenn.

Foster, then the chairman of the development district's board of directors, read a statement that he knew was false at the board's Jan. 19, 2012, to meeting to cover up Askins' and Webb's illegal activity, the U.S. Department of Justice news release states.

Foster couldn't be reached for comment late Thursday afternoon. If convicted on charges of fraud and making false statements, he faces up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

In order to cover up the illegal activity, the release states, Askins and Webb directed other individuals to alter the official minutes of the development district board meeting that occurred on Feb. 16, 2010, and to delete audio recordings of all the development district meetings.

"Once again, we will reiterate that those who seek to profit by defrauding the taxpaying public and misusing government funds will be held accountable," Acting U.S. Attorney David Rivera stated in the news release. "The personal gain and lavish lifestyles gained by fraudulent schemes will eventually come to an end. Public corruption remains a top priority of the U.S. Attorney's Office and our partner law enforcement agencies."

Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at tomarzu@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6651.

about Tim Omarzu...

Tim Omarzu covers Catoosa and Walker counties for the Times Free Press. Omarzu is a longtime journalist who has worked as a reporter and editor at daily and weekly newspapers in Michigan, Nevada and California. Stories he's covered include crime in blighted parts of metro Detroit and Reno, Nev.; environmental activists tree-sitting in California's Sierra Nevada foothills; attempts by the Michigan Militia to take over a township┬╣s government in northern Michigan. A native of Michigan, ...

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