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Global Green Lighting President & CEO Don Lepard talks about his company's lights June 7, 2016. / Staff file photo by Angela Lewis Foster

A former vendor for the city of Chattanooga has challenged the City Council to charge him, request a state audit or otherwise absolve him of any wrongdoing in his reclaiming of $5.9 million of streetlights formerly owned by the city, after a memorandum by the city's internal audit office resurfaced the issue this summer.

In a scathing letter to the council, Don Lepard, owner of Chattanooga company Global Green Lighting, disputes findings of the memorandum published in July by Stan Sewell, the city's independent internal auditor.

After condemning Sewell's "accusatory tone," Lepard urges council to get to the bottom of the issue and for the city to retract any accusation made against him in the memorandum.

In the letter, which was presented on his behalf by local attorney Buddy Presley, Lepard denies any wrongdoing and challenges the council to quote:

"* Officially charge [him] of a crime and let [him] defend [himself] using only the truthful facts, or

"* Ask the right questions, review the facts in the attached timeline showing GGL operated under the authority of the former City Attorney Wade Hinton and direct Mr. Sewell to publicly retract and apologize for the statement in the audit, which was leaked to the media, and/or

"* Ask the State Comptroller and/or the TBI to conduct an official government audit and investigation to review how and why Wade Hinton and Mayor Andy Berke used $6 million of City's assets to pay for a three way Global Settlement Agreement between the City EPB and GGL that was never brought to the Council for its approval."

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Lepard's company was contracted under former Mayor Ron Littlefield to provide high-tech and environmentally sound street lights for the city, which were removed under current Mayor Andy Berke in 2014 due to documented technological failures.

Then, the roughly $5.9 million in lights were placed in city storage for years until Lepard was allowed to reclaim them in 2018 as a part of a settlement with the city.

The memorandum, which was published publicly by Sewell in July, questions the manor in which the lights were surrendered to Lepard, since the council never approved them as surplus, as required by the settlement agreement that allowed Lepard to reclaim the inventory.

"The intent of the agreement was to resolve all claims by GGL against the City, as well as all potential claims by the City against GGL," Sewell writes. "The terms stated that upon approval of the City Council and signature of the City's authorized representative, the City would transfer ownership, use and control of all GGL light fixtures currently in the possession of the City located at the Main Street warehouse and adjacent lot."

The matter of surplussing the inventory was not on any city council agenda available to the public in 2018. According to Vice Chairman Ken Smith, that's because the council never voted on any resolution to do so.

"The City Council was never presented a resolution, or any other kind of information regarding returning the assets to Global Green," Smith said Friday, noting that the council had only been made aware of the matter before the audit took place.

"It was before the audit, but I do not recall the exact date I became aware that the lights had been removed."

While the council never voted on any resolution allowing the inventory to be returned to Lepard, it is unclear at this time whether the council was made aware of the settlement in privileged attorney-client communications with the city attorney.

When asked what prompted the memorandum and audit of the equipment this summer, two years after the fact, Sewell said he is unable to comment on the matter due to the involvement of legal counsel in the matter.

Hinton, who declined to answer specific questions on the issue, told the Times Free Press on Friday that the matter calls for further review by the city.

"The return or transfer of the lights to GGL required City Council approval. That was the agreement," Hinton wrote in an email. "With the recent City audit report, a review of the controls for transferring and releasing City property would be an appropriate action item."

Smith says the council has requested more information from the city attorney to determine who's "at fault" in the matter.

"I say at fault because the auditor's report insinuated that the lights were taken illegally so where does that leave us out as a city? Are we going to say that somebody stole the lights? Are we going to say that somebody had permission?" Smith explained when asked about next steps. "And so the city attorney is supposed to be collecting as much information as possible to present back to the council. Now, that may occur in a client-attorney meeting, at least initially, simply because it is our understanding that there was an actual agreement signed between [Hinton] and Global Green for this to take place, which means that there could be potential litigation."

When asked how the lights were given to Lepard without council approval and what the city was doing to rectify questions raised in Sewell's memorandum, a spokeswoman for Berke issued the following statement:

"The City has a well-documented history with Global Green Lighting, unfortunately, as many documents have shown, the lights did not work as advertised and were causing significant problems. To save taxpayers dollars and provide reliable service, the city took the lights down many years ago to resume our service with EPB," Communications Director Richel Albright wrote Friday. "Global Green filed several lawsuits against the City and EPB, and those were dismissed by a judge. The court also awarded thousands of dollars of attorney's fees against GGL. After the lights were taken down, a court signed orders dismissing the lawsuits and returning the lights to Global Green. That was done several years ago."

Albright added that the memorandum was neither commissioned nor leaked by the mayor's office, but was conducted and published by Sewell's independent office.

Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at staylor@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6416. Follow her on Twitter @_sarahgtaylor.

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