Vocational college director questions another investigation

Nathan Baker • Oct 12, 2013 at 7:46 PM

ELIZABETHTON — Tennessee College of Applied Technology Director Dean Blevins questioned the need for a criminal investigation into work performed by students on his houseboat after the release of a state audit that he said cleared him of wrongdoing.

“Especially when have a clean audit, I don’t understand why they would want to have another investigation,” Blevins said Friday about an investigation announced earlier this week by Carter County Sheriff Chris Mathes. “You’d have to ask the other folks that are doing the investigating.”

Blevins said an audit completed in August by the Tennessee Board of Regents cleared him of any wrongdoing after the state agency received complaints that he inappropriately used students from the school’s welding, electrical, HVAC, millwright and pipefitting classes to build a houseboat for his personal use.

In the audit report, TBR investigators wrote that 17 students in electrical and welding classes did perform work on Blevins’ boat in March and April, but all of the work was performed as live work projects allowed by the TBR to give students hands-on vocational experience.

The auditors did note that while it was difficult to evaluate whether the work constituted a conflict of interest, they did find that the projects created “at least the perception of a conflict of interest” and recommended policy changes that would eliminate those perceptions in the future.

“We’ve already enacted all of the oversight requests made by the internal audit and done internal training for all the instructors and administrators involved in live work,” Blevins said. “In the past, I’ve never given my approval for live work done for me anyway, I’ve always had the assistant director go over it. So we already had some internal mechanisms against conflicts of interests, but we’re always open to scrutinizing and improving our policies.”

He said students at the vocational college often perform tasks related to their classes for members of the community, governments and employees at the university.

“They do a lot of automobile work, HVAC service, diesel engine work, whatever an instructor hears needs to be done and requests it,” Blevins said. “Not a whole lot of them are faculty and staff, but some of them are.”

The director said an instructor with the college’s electrical program asked him several times to allow students to do a live work project on the houseboat he had been refurbishing before he agreed to the work.

“My initial intention was to do all the work myself, and I did 95 percent of it before the students started,” Blevins said. “But I left it to them to pull branch circuits and rough-in the wiring.”

He said a project that would have taken him two or three days took the students about two weeks to complete because of the extra time needed for instruction.

“They can’t be in a hurry when they’re doing live work, it takes them longer because the work is spread out over class times,” he said. “After they spent all that extra time, a call was made to the comptroller’s office accusing me of making the teachers and the students build me a boat and the materials were bought by the school and the state. That’s just not true, I have receipts for everything.”

Blevins said he was surprised when he learned of the audit, and again when a private investigator, hired by an anonymous person, began calling students and instructors.

“I don’t know who hired him, but he started looking into the allegation, even after the audit was well under way,” he said. “He talked to many of the students, and I want to believe there was nothing found.”

But Blevins said he would make himself and his staff available for another investigation if law enforcement wanted to pursue it.

“We have said from day one that any reputable law enforcement agency that wants to come in can if they feel the need to after the audit,” he said. “We would more than welcome the TBI to come in and investigate.”

Mathes, who has stated publicly his desire to investigate the matter, did not return calls seeking comment Friday.

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