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East Tennessee Lions Eye Bank holds quarterly board meeting, asks 10News to leave

Two other guests were allowed to stay. Executive Director Valerie Stewart said that's because they were former board members and/or Lions Club members.

POWELL, Tenn. — On Thursday morning, 10News learned the East Tennessee Lions Eye Bank would be holding its quarterly board meeting at 6 p.m. at the Powell Lions Club.

WBIR has been investigating the compensation for the eye bank's CEO, Valerie Stewart, after a board member raised questions. Stewart received more than $450,000 in 2019, tax forms show, far more than most eye bank leaders make across the nation.

We told Stewart on Thursday we intended to be at the board meeting. She told us it would not be worth our time.

"I'm sorry. It would not do you any good. After the stats and minutes are approved only board members can stay," she said. "But you have my word ETLEB does not want negative publicity and change has happened!"

WBIR asked twice what those changes were, but Stewart told us she'd have to check with an attorney. 

10News arrived outside the Powell Lions Club at 5:30 p.m. Thursday.

By 6:15 p.m., no one had arrived. We were alerted the ETLEB had moved its quarterly meeting to the Powell Presbyterian Church instead.  

Credit: WBIR

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

Stewart greeted us by name as we walked into the church cafeteria. When asked why the location was changed, she said they "thought it'd be safer given everything that's happened."

She said some board members feel uncomfortable around now-former board member Brandon Johnson, and that they were concerned he would show up. Johnson raised questions this spring about Stewart's compensation, and board members decided this month to expel him.

Stewart told the board Thursday during the meeting that the organization has provided $180,000 in free or reduced eye tissue to the community. That includes people who are uninsured or cannot afford the co-pay.

10News was then informed we could either stop taking notes or leave because the rest of the meeting was off the record. 

Around 7:45 p.m., after a statistics presentation and minutes discussion, we were told we could no longer be in the room. Two other guests were allowed to stay.

Stewart said that's because they are current Lions and/or former ETLEB board members. She left the meeting around 9:15 p.m.

She declined to answer our questions about the board's bylaws, who let ETLEB use the church for its quarterly meeting, who her attorney is, or what changes the ETLEB has made.

"We're not going to comment really," she told 10News. "This is silly. I don't want to do this."

One person leaving after the meeting ended told 10News that nothing significant was done because everything is still in the planning stages. Another said they're going to have separate meetings about "changing things for the better."

Three others told us no comment. 

On Friday, 10News reached out to Stewart, Board President Mike Vudragovich and Past President Tony Gross with a number of questions.

Those included whether the non-profit's bylaws allow members of the public to attend, who is allowed to attend future meetings and whether any changes were made to the ETLEB's compensation policy.

"You already know that our lawyer has told us to say no comment," Stewart emailed back.

Statement from Valerie Stewart 8/10:

No, we were not trying to hide anything Grace. Some people as I told you before are afraid of Brandon. The meeting place was for their safety. Also, we need to focus on the Eye Bank and do our job. If your news station covers only negative false news why we would want you there. Sorry you are not professional enough to find another story. Seems you have wore this one out since your last episode was about being asked to leave a board meeting. I feel sorry for you that this is the only thing you can report about and it seems to be the same thing over and over again. If you were good at your job you might find that lots of people are helped in this community by us and we are very giving and concerned about other people than trying to make a name by destroying someone else's. I pray you don't find another target to destroy. We are moving forward even with your negative twisted comments. If you can't help with our mission then please don't try to stop us from doing such great work.

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