Sept. 29, 2020 – Tennessean – By: Natalie Allison
Tennessee House Democrats are now joining the political fight over coronavirus relief spending, following recent attacks on Nashville by Gov. Bill Lee and House Republican legislative leadership.
After Lee earlier this month denied Nashville Mayor John Cooper’s request for an $82 million portion of the state’s federal coronavirus relief funds — money that would be on top of $121 million the city already directly received from the federal government — House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, last week asked the state comptroller to review Nashville’s spending of COVID-19 stimulus dollars.
But on Tuesday, in a letter spearheaded by Rep. John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville, half of the House Democratic Caucus requested from Comptroller Justin Wilson an audit of their own: looking at the Lee administration’s spending of federal coronavirus funds.
In addition to billions of other dollars in earmarked COVID-19 stimulus funds, Tennessee received $2.3 billion in from the federal Coronavirus Relief Fund, which allows states and some cities broad flexibility in how the money is spent.
“Our sincere fiscal concerns stem from the Lee administration’s well-documented history of awarding no-bid contracts to vendors,” Clemmons wrote.
He cited the administration’s award of a $1.2 million annual contract with ClassWallet. Awarded before the pandemic, the agreement with the Florida-based company was reached outside of the state’s typical procurement process. The state hired the company to administer Tennessee’s education savings account program.
Lee’s spokesman Gillum Ferguson took issue with the reference to the ClassWallet contract, and said “sole source contracts are common and appropriate when market conditions call for it,” which is determined by the state’s Central Procurement Office.
In the letter, Clemmons then referenced tens of millions of dollars in expenditures using coronavirus relief funds, including more than $8 million in a no-bid contract to North Carolina-based sock company Renfro. Tennessee hired the company to produce 5 million masks that would be distributed to citizens.
He listed other contracts for personal protective equipment that have raised eyebrows as well, including one with a furniture company owned by state Rep. Jerry Sexton, R-Bean Station, previously reported by NewsChannel 5.
“Fair questions about political connections and favoritism to supporters have been raised about the reasons for Gov. Lee’s highly suspect business dealings on behalf of our state,” Clemmons wrote. “Whether Governor Bill Lee is simply guilty of fiscal mismanagement and/or administrative incompetence or whether he has abused his broad emergency powers to enrich political allies and donors with no-bid state contracts are questions worthy of investigation.
“At the very least, the people of Tennessee deserve to know how, where, and why their hard-earned tax dollars were spent and to whom they were paid.”
Asked about the letter in a news briefing Tuesday afternoon, Lee said that the comptroller audits all federal grant spending, and would already be doing so for coronavirus-related expenses.
Under Tennessee’s state of emergency, which has been in effect due to the pandemic since March, Lee by law has been authorized to make purchases without following the usual bidding process.
The governor has defended the state’s use of the emergency, no-bid procurement process, saying the state needed to make recent purchases quickly.
His office did not immediately respond to a request about the Democrats’ call for an audit of spending.
Lee later Tuesday announced he would be extending the state of emergency, which grants him wider-than-usual executive authority. Lee and has faced scrutiny even from Republicans in recent months over the constitutionality of his emergency powers.
In the news briefing, Lee said he planned to continue to make use of the flexibility permitted under the emergency procurement process as long as a state of emergency is in place.