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College director accused of misusing student workers for the benefit of his houseboat

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ELIZABETHTON, TN (WJHL) -

Carter County Sheriff Chris Mathes says he has opened an investigation into the director of the Tennessee College of Applied Technology at Elizabethton.

According to the sheriff, TCAT Director Dean Blevins is under investigation for possibly misusing student labor for his personal gain.

The investigation centers around work TCAT students completed at Blevins' houseboat on Boone Lake earlier this year.

"Electrical, welding...that type of work was going on there," Sheriff Mathes said. "There's nothing wrong with somebody building a boathouse and upgrading it and fixing it up, but when state or government funds are used in any shape, form or fashion, that's why this investigation has been brought to me."

Sheriff Mathes says he opened an investigation into Blevins around the same time the Tennessee Board of Regents completed an audit into the allegation of inappropriate use of students. 

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The audit concluded some electrical and welding students completed the work on the houseboat through the school's live work program; a state-approved program that allows students to work on public or private jobs for their educational benefit.

However, the audit revealed the school did not completely follow the proper process when filling out forms and collecting fees for the project. As a result, TBR recommended several changes for the future.

Among the recommendations is a possible change in its conflict of interest policy to make sure all future live work projects for management employees, including the director and assistant director, get the approval of the Vice Chancellor.

"It is difficult to evaluate whether a conflict of interest actually existed by comparing the personal financial benefit to the Director, as a result of the live work projects on his houseboat, to the instructional benefit provided to the students," the audit concluded. "However, performing the live work projects on the Director's houseboat created at least the perception of a conflict of interest."

The sheriff says his concerns don't stop there. He says it concerns him that what used to be a tiny boathouse has been transformed into one of the nicest ones at the marina, thanks in part to the help of students.

"This wasn't for a church, this wasn't for a government entity, a non-profit entity, there would be no question," Sheriff Mathes said. "It reeks of improprieties. A significant amount of work was done on a daily basis with student labor. It's definitely worth investigating."

The sheriff says not only did students work on this project, so did their teachers; people paid by the State of Tennessee.

"We're probably going to recommend that TBI get involved," Sheriff Mathes said.

Since the houseboat is actually in Washington County, District Attorney Tony Clark says he is also involved with the investigation.

"It's being looked at to see if there was any misuse of the students or materials," Clark said. "We're going to try to have a meeting this week."

Blevins says there's no truth to any of the allegations.

"All that's lies," Blevins said. "All of the allegations are false. It's a clean audit. There's no wrongdoing that was found on the part of anyone here, myself included."

Blevins says although there's the perception he benefited from the project, he says he really did not. He doesn't dispute that students worked on his houseboat. However, he does dispute any allegations that he acted criminally or unethically.

Blevins says the students did minimal work in the grand scheme. In fact, he says he built more than 90% of the houseboat himself with his own materials. Blevins says he's a licensed electrician and if he wanted to, he could have finished this houseboat on his own in two to three days, but instead gave up his entire summer so students could get real world experience finishing that project.

"I missed out on the use of my houseboat for a whole summer, because it was a learning experience (for the students)," Blevins said. "I was thinking of the benefit of the students. State policies allow for it. The state cleared all of us of any wrongdoing. I've got receipts for everything. I paid for everything. We've done hundreds of thousands of other live work projects."

TBR Spokesperson Monica Greppin-Watts says although the audit found a question as to whether or not a conflict of interest occurred, the audit found overall, Blevins followed the rules.

"He didn't violate the live work policy," Greppin-Watts said.

Terry Peters is one of several former and current employees who have called us today and are coming to the director's defense.

"He did not do anything wrong, because he followed policy," Peters reiterated. "I'm friends with Dean Blevins. I've known him for years. He's probably the best director we've ever had at that school."

Before retiring in 2012, Peters worked at the school as an electrical instructor. His son followed in his footsteps. In fact, he says it was his son's idea to pursue the houseboat project for the benefit of students.

"The students got to run about 600 foot of conduit, which they couldn't do there in their shop," Peters said. "There was no crime, none whatsoever."

Peters says with a policy change now in the works, students are the ones who are going to lose out. He says the live work program has never been called into question before, even though 10 years ago he helped wire a heating and air unit at an assistant director's home.

"It's the instructor and he's a professional (asking the question), 'Is this a learning process for the student?'" Peters said. "In all cases it's been a learning process for students."

Blevins says the allegations are the result of two disgruntled employees that received poor performance evaluations trying to get back at him.

Sheriff Mathes says he's in the process of gathering more interviews to decide whether or not a crime occurred.

"Was there any state or government funds that was not used appropriately?" Mathes wondered. "There's numerous students, teachers (out there). Anyone who has knowledge about this is encouraged to come forward."

Copyright WJHL 2013. All rights reserved.

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