Blue Hog blogger refiles lawsuit against State Police over Sanders’ travel info

Blue Hog writer targets statements by state police head

Blogger Matt Campbell speaks to media in Little Rock in this 2022 file photo.(Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staci Vandagriff)

Public statements made by the director of the Arkansas State Police in the run-up to lawmakers' carving exemptions out of the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act for Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders' security detail undermine police legal arguments that documents related to her travel sought by Blue Hog Report blogger Matt Campbell should be withheld from public disclosure, the attorney claims in a new lawsuit.

"Col. Mike Hagar, director of the Arkansas State Police, conceded that he had actually withheld the records because he believed that plaintiff wanted the records to 'embarrass' the Governor," Campbell's Freedom of Information lawsuit states.

A Hagar representative declined to comment on the suit, citing agency policy on pending litigation.

A first-term Republican, who is just about to mark nine months in office, Sanders appointed Hagar to be her Secretary of Public Safety in January after she became the state's first woman to be elected governor. Hagar has been with state police 27 years, serving for 14 years as part of the governor's protection unit, known as the Executive Protection Detail, with about five years as detail commander.

Campbell's lawsuit was filed in Pulaski County Circuit Court on Friday night. Simultaneously, Campbell petitioned the court to delay implementation of those new open-record restrictions sought by the governor said to be necessary to protect her safety.

The new litigation is the second time Campbell has sued to get the materials related to Sanders' use of the State Police jet along with security costs for her and her family, including the expenses of a European trip.

Sanders called a legislative special session last month, in part to make changes to the state's open-records law to address potential disclosure of state police materials the married mother of three said would put her family's safety at risk. Her supporters have derided Campbell's inquiries as a liberal political stunt that would jeopardize the safety of Sanders and her family.

Campbell has responded, denying that anything he's asked for would put Sanders at risk while saying the public is entitled to know how much public money has been spent on her use of the state police jet and who has been traveling with her.

He was forced to withdraw the first suit when he got sick with covid and could not make a court hearing to argue his position. The blogger's new suit addresses remarks Hagar made in separate appearances last month to the legislative advisory committees that endorsed the Freedom of Information changes ahead of the vote that secured them into law as Act 7 of 2023.

State police had endorsed the security exemptions, with Hagar speaking in favor of them on Sept. 12 before the Senate State Agencies and Governmental Affairs committee, then again on Sept. 13 before the Senate and House Committee on State Agencies and Government Affairs. Each appearance lasted about 20 minutes.

Campbell claims in those public statements, when addressing the law that state police have used to justify the decision to withhold documents as a security risk, Hagar has shown that he had been deliberately misinterpreting the law to keep secret the materials Campbell has been seeking.

"Importantly -- and absolutely fatal to any defense that might be offered by the defendants in this matter -- the defendants, through the sworn testimony of Defendant Hagar, admitted that [Arkansas Code 12-8-108] did not exempt the records that plaintiff had requested, despite the repeated false assertions of this claim [by state police lawyers]," the suit states.

For years, state police have relied on statute 12-8-108 to keep all gubernatorial security provisions secret, Hagar told Senate committee members. But the Freedom of Information Act needed to change because a 2017 measure exempting security measures at the Governor's Mansion had "kind of ... muddied" the law, he said.

"That's the reason we would like to clean that up to where it would once and for all get us away from answering these FOIA requests and finding ourselves in the position that we're in now," he told the Senate committee members. "The reason we're being sued ... is because it's gray enough. This addition to the statute has added enough gray area that a lawsuit has now come forward."

It was in that appearance that Hagar called into question the motivation of Campbell and his supporters for seeking the materials, although he did not address the blogger by name.

"It's the people that are activist bloggers. It's the people that are sitting at home ... the reason they want the information is to try to embarrass the governor, to try to manipulate information to embarrass the governor or to use as political leverage," Hagar said. "The thing is that the records that have been released, there's nothing to embarrass the governor about, she's done nothing with her security that is any different with any other governor."

On both occasions, Hagar told lawmakers that his only concern is the safety and protection of Sanders and her family of five. He warned that releasing specifics about her security detail or the provisions made for her predecessors' protection could allow bad actors to suss out the strategies and protocols used to protect the state's chief executive officer.

Hagar also denied withholding materials to shield Sanders from bad publicity, telling lawmakers in one appearance that, "My only responsibility, my only task, is to protect the governor and her family as it relates to this issue.

"So we don't care about information being embarrassing to the governor. She did not hire me to be her political consultant. We do not want to share information that's going to compromise security. That's the only thing that we're looking out for."

Campbell is also challenging the legality of the way lawmakers approved the FOI changes as an emergency action, stating that lawmakers violated the state Constitution to do so. The emergency designation allows the law to go into effect immediately.

Aside from asking Pulaski County Circuit Judge Herb Wright to force State Police to turn over the materials he's asked for, Campbell is also calling on the judge to negate the law's emergency status and block the open-records changes from taking effect until Dec. 13. That date is 90 days past the special session's adjournment when non-emergency laws passed during the session will take effect.

Wright is on record agreeing with the argument Campbell has advanced on that issue, which is that by labeling the measure as an emergency, legislators were required by Article 5 of the state Constitution to conduct separate votes, one to enact the legislation, the second to grant the emergency designation.

In a decision now before the Arkansas Supreme Court involving Sanders' education reform package, the Arkansas LEARNS Act, Wright found the law was illegally deemed an emergency because the House and Senate failed to conduct separate votes.