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10Investigates: Non-profit removes board member after he raised questions about executive's $445k compensation

In a statement to 10News, the board said it removed him because he 'adamantly refused' to work with them and believed his conduct was 'inappropriate.'

KNOXVILLE, Tennessee — On Tuesday, the East Tennessee Lions Eye Bank (ETLEB) board of directors held a special-called meeting to discuss the removal of Brandon Johnson.

Without any discussion, the 10 present members voted unanimously to remove him from his director position.10News was allowed to attend the meeting but could not record anything.

Johnson had raised questions about why Executive Director Valerie Stewart made roughly $445,000 during the 2019 tax year, including about $200,000 in bonus and incentive compensation. 

The non-profit reported $2,015,435 in total revenue that year to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). Stewart's total compensation was more than a fifth of that.

RELATED: 10Investigates: East TN eye bank chief's compensation raises questions about what pay is proper

"The CEO called me and gave me an ultimatum: either I could resign from her board, or she already had the votes together to lead a vote forcibly removing me from the board," Johnson wrote in a letter to the other ETLEB directors. "She said that I did not have the right to 'police' the organization."

Credit: WBIR

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In a statement to 10News, the ETLEB said it's aware of the allegations that its employee incentive program is excessive. 

"Mr. Johnson has also alleged that the other Directors are retaliating against him for voicing his concerns. These allegations are not true," it said. "When Mr. Johnson raised his concerns during a recent board meeting, the other Directors listened, but ultimately disagreed with him."

The ETLEB said it asked him to substantiate his allegations, invited him to serve on a committee and meet with the leadership team to discuss his concerns further.

Johnson told 10News that's "blatantly not true" and that he was never given the opportunity to serve on a committee. He said he was left out of several board conversations even though he was a current member.

Credit: WBIR

ETLEB said it explained its board procedures to Johnson many times.

"He adamantly refused to work with the Board," the statement said. "The Board believes that Mr. Johnson’s conduct during this time is inappropriate and that it is in the organization’s best interests to part ways with him."

Johnson wrote his questions were coming from a place of love for the eye bank's mission and that he hoped the other directors would take his concerns seriously.

"At the end of the day, we were elected to be good stewards," he wrote in a letter to other directors. "Monitoring things like compensation is one of our most important responsibilities."

The ETLEB said it feels the executive director compensation is appropriate, given Stewart's responsibilities and tenure.

 "[The Board] has the sole authority and responsibility for determining her compensation," it said in a statement. "Considering her years of service and success, Ms. Stewart’s compensation is reasonable and well earned."

ETLEB Full Statement: 

East Tennessee Lions Eye Bank is aware of allegations by Brandon Johnson, a current member of its Board of Directors, that its employee incentive program is excessive.  Mr. Johnson has also alleged that the other Directors are retaliating against him for voicing his concerns.  These allegations are not true.  When Mr. Johnson raised his concerns during a recent board meeting, the other Directors listened, but ultimately disagreed with him.  The Board asked Mr. Johnson to substantiate his allegations; invited him to serve on a committee; and meet with the leadership team to discuss his concerns further; however, he refused.  The Board explained it procedures many times, and he adamantly refused to work with the Board. The Board believes that Mr. Johnson’s conduct during this time is inappropriate and that it is in the organization’s best interests to part ways with him. 

The Board is comprised of independent, community volunteers.  It has many responsibilities, including setting compensation policies.  In 1991, the Board adopted an incentive program that rewards the hard work and dedication of its team.  The incentive program is funded exclusively from earned program service fees.  No portion of the incentive program is paid from public contributions.

Since 1998, Valerie Stewart has led the organization with steadfast dedication and grace.  She and her team are tireless advocates for persons suffering from sight impairment and blindness.  The Board works closely with Ms. Stewart, and it has the sole authority and responsibility for determining her compensation.  Ms. Stewart was not an employee or a director when the Board adopted the incentive program.  Considering her years of service and success, Ms. Stewart’s compensation is reasonable and well earned. 

East Tennessee Lions Eye Bank is proud to have earned high scores for its financial health and commitment to governance practices from independent nonprofit watchdog groups like Charity Navigator.  Over 80% of every dollar received goes toward fulfilling its commitment to the community by helping restore sight in over 400 people annually and funding projects like adding musical toys with Braille instructions on local playgrounds.  The remaining dollars spent allow the organization to pay its team fairly and cover routine, but necessary business operations.  Information about the organization’s revenues, expenses, and other important information is accessible on the Tennessee Secretary of State’s website (sos.tn.gov/charities). 

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