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House Democrats ask for audit of Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee's no-bid COVID deals

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Posted at 11:33 AM, Sep 29, 2020
and last updated 2020-09-29 15:27:23-04

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — A dozen Democratic House members are asking state auditors to review Gov. Bill Lee's COVID-19 spending following questions raised by NewsChannel 5 Investigates.

That letter, sent to state Comptroller Justin Wilson, specifically cites NewsChannel 5's exclusive investigation exposing how the state went on an $80 million, no-bid spending spree, including deals struck with a company with ties to a GOP activist and another owned by a Republican lawmaker.

"What this is, is our sincere concern about Gov. Bill Lee appearing to hand out no-bid government contracts like candy on Halloween," said Rep. John Ray Clemmons, the Nashville Democrat who drafted the letter.

"We can’t have a governor of Tennessee simply handing out contracts to anyone who shows up on his doorstep with their hands open."

Among the findings of the NewsChannel 5 investigation, the Lee administration spent $8.3 million to purchase face masks from Renfro Corp., a North Carolina-based sock manufacturer, without giving any other company a chance to bid on the job.

Another $6.8 million went to a small Hickman County security company, again with no bidding, for personal protective equipment. That company, Pale Horse GRS, was introduced to the state by Republican activist and Metro Council member Robert Swope.

Lee's administration also struck a deal with East Tennessee Republican Rep. Jerry Sexton to produce hospital gowns at nearly double the price paid to other vendors.

"Fair questions about political connections and favoritism to supporters have been raised about the reason for Gov. Lee's highly suspect dealings on behalf of our state," Clemmons said in the letter to the comptroller.

"Whether Governor Bill Lee is guilty of fiscal mismanagement and/or administrative incompetence or whether he has abused his broad emergency powers to enrich 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."

Lee has defended the deals, insisting that Tennessee was operating under a state of emergency and did not have time to follow the normal procurement process.

The Governor's Office recently refused to release an unknown number of emails regarding those deals, citing attorney-client privilege and a controversial doctrine known as "due-process privilege."

Clemmons' letter notes, "As Comptroller, you are uniquely positioned and empowered to provide Tennesseans the answers and transparency they rightfully expect and deserve."

The letter was also signed by Reps. Karen Camper, Mike Stewart, Bill Beck, Barbara Cooper, Vincent Dixie, Gloria Johnson, London Lamar, Larry Miller, Jason Potts, Jason Powell and Dwayne Thompson.

It follows a similar request from House Republicans for an audit of how Nashville Mayor John Cooper's administration has spent COVID-19 money that the city received as part of the federal stimulus package.

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