Chattanooga power board hit with $10M lawsuit claiming false billing

A judge has unsealed a $10 million whistle-blower lawsuit filed against Chattanooga’s Electric Power Board that alleges the utility made false claims on its billing records for 20 years, reports the Times-Free Press.

Plaintiff Don Lepard alleged he discovered an estimated $5.9 million in billing discrepancies when Chattanooga officials contracted with him in 2011 to replace streetlights, but the suit said his warnings to both parties fell on deaf ears.

Instead of settling the matter with the city, EPB instead began making covert changes to its billing procedures and attempted to discredit Lepard, he alleged.

“Here’s what got them caught: greed,” Lepard said.

EPB president and CEO Harold DePriest declined Friday to comment specifically on Lepard’s claims.

EPB has admitted that it charged the city for thousands of older, high-wattage lights that were no longer on the poles, and which in many cases had been replaced by more energy-efficient lights. But the utility has steadfastly maintained that these overcharges were balanced out by other mistakes and costs.

…Lepard’s lawsuit falls under Tennessee’s whistleblower law, which allows individuals to bring lawsuits on behalf of cities or the state, with a large portion of the damages being returned to taxpayers. The city may opt not to take the lead in such a lawsuit, instead allowing co-plaintiffs like Lepard to pursue the case.

City Attorney Wade Hinton said Mayor Andy Berke and the City Council elected not to join Lepard’s lawsuit because a small group of the mayor’s top staff is privately pressing EPB on its overcharges and to avoid paying attorney fees. But Hinton reserved the right to intervene “if the discussions with EPB are not fruitful.”

If his suit is successful, Lepard could receive between 25 percent and 50 percent of any damages awarded under the statute governing whistle-blower lawsuits.