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Nonprofit changes pay structure for staff, executives following 10News investigation

Our investigation revealed the East Tennessee Lions Eye Bank executive director is the highest paid in the country, prompting questions about what pay is proper.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The East Tennessee Lions Eye Bank (ETLEB) has revised its CEO and staff compensation structure, according to the Eye Bank Association of America (EBAA).

The changes were made in August 2022 after the ETLEB board of directors conducted a review of its personnel policies.

"These policy changes occurred after the close of the eye bank’s 2022 fiscal year, so those financial reports do not accurately present the eye bank’s current polices," said Kevin Corcoran, president and CEO of EBAA. "While EBAA has no authority over the business operations of individual eye banks, ETLEB shared the new policy with our Board of Directors; we accepted their report and took no further action.”

A 10News investigation last summer revealed ETLEB's longtime executive director —Valerie Stewart — was the highest compensated nonprofit eye bank executive in the country for the 2019-2020 fiscal year.

On average, we found the top-paid executives for nonprofit eye banks earn roughly $154,324. Stewart was paid $445,020 in total compensation that year.

That big paycheck sparked criticism and concern among some.

"After looking at the data, our CEO is the highest compensated CEO of an eye bank in the country by a long shot," said Brandon Johnson, who's a now-former board member, wrote in an email. "Monitoring things like compensation is one of our most important responsibilities. I urge the board to take my concerns seriously, and act appropriately in this matter."

He was subsequently voted off the ETLEB board of directors.

Larry Elder, a former president of the Tellico Village Lions Club, said they didn't donate to the ETLEB for the first time in years over concerns about "how it's being operated."

"Considering her years of service and success, Ms. Stewart’s compensation is reasonable and well earned," said a statement Stewart sent on behalf of the ETLEB board. "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."

New Form 990 filings provided by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) show Stewart continued to earn six-figure bonuses even when the ETLEB's financial situation worsened.

In the 2020-2021 fiscal year, records show the organization reported it lost $37,369. It paid Stewart $412,029 in total compensation that year, including $199,944 in "bonus and incentive compensation."

In the 2021-2022 fiscal year, records show the organization reported it lost $248,720. It paid Stewart $320,403 in total compensation that year, including $101,390 in "bonus and incentive compensation."

10News emailed Stewart and ETLEB board president Mike Vudragovich twice this week with questions about the most recent financial disclosures, like why the eye bank took in less than it paid out and what determined bonuses through summer 2022.

We also asked what compensation changes were made and presented to the EBAA. As of 5:15 p.m. on July 27, neither of them has responded.

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