Sanders says lectern purchase followed ‘regular course of law’

Committee will take up the request for audit at meeting

Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders answers questions from the media after attending the Milken Educator Award announcement on Wednesday at Mayflower High School.
(Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Thomas Metthe)
Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders answers questions from the media after attending the Milken Educator Award announcement on Wednesday at Mayflower High School. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Thomas Metthe)

MAYFLOWER -- Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders reiterated Wednesday that the state's purchase of a $19,000 lectern "is something that wasn't paid for by taxpayers."

The Republican governor responded to questions about the lectern, which has prompted one state senator to call for an audit of its purchase.

The state purchased the 39-inch custom Falcon Podium and traveling case in June for around $19,000. Attorney and Blue Hog Report blogger Matt Campbell discovered the purchase through a records request and posted an invoice for it on X, formerly known as Twitter, in September.

The price of the lectern and questions surrounding its purchase have led to widespread criticism of the governor, who described the blowback as a "manufactured controversy" stirred up by critics.

"Look, this is something that wasn't paid for by taxpayers, [it's] something we can use over the course of the next seven and a half years," Sanders said Wednesday. "And it's something that not only I, but a number of other officials around the state will be able to have access to."

State records show the Republican Party of Arkansas reimbursed the state for the purchase with a $19,029.25 check dated Sept. 14. That was three days after Campbell filed a state Freedom of Information Act request for records regarding the purchase, and one day before Campbell received the state's response to his information request, according to Campbell.

Seth Mays, executive director of the Republican Party of Arkansas, told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette last week that the party reimbursed the state for the lectern through a special projects account and that the party is its owner.

The state purchased the lectern from Beckett Events, LLC., an events management firm based in Arlington, Va. The firm does not advertise the sale of lecterns or other items on its website.

Asked Wednesday why the lectern cost $19,000, Sanders did not offer specific details.

"There are a number of features," she said. "I'm happy to connect you with the vendor that builds and puts these together, but it's not really my area of specialty. I'm focused on the things I'm good at. Building podiums is probably not one of them."

Asked who approved the purchase, Sanders said "[We] followed the regular course of law, standard operating procedure for any purchase that would take place by the state."

Last week, state Sen. Jimmy Hickey Jr., R-Texarkana, asked for a legislative audit to investigate the purchase of the lectern, saying there were unanswered questions. The former co-chairman of the Legislative Joint Auditing Committee also wrote in his letter that he wants auditors to investigate "all matters, involving the Governor or the Governor's office, made confidential" by a recent law that expanded what kind of records are exempt from disclosure under the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act.

In response to Hickey's request for an audit, Tom Mars, a Rogers attorney and a former director of the Arkansas State Police, wrote a letter to the Republican senator saying he represents a client "with firsthand knowledge" that the governor's office interfered with Campbell's records request.

Mars said his client has evidence the governor's office altered documents while withholding others from Campbell, who was entitled to the records under the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act.

"So what if the Governor twisted the arm of the [Arkansas] GOP Chair who used to work for her when she got caught and asked him to have the Republican Party reimburse the state?" Mars said in a text message. "That's not a defense, and it doesn't offer her any legal protection."

Campbell is also suing the Arkansas State Police to obtain access to documents he requested on how much it spent protecting and transporting Sanders on a state plane. Campbell refiled his lawsuit this week after withdrawing it last month after he tested positive for covid-19 and had to miss a hearing, he said.

Sanders has denied any records turned over under the information request were altered or withheld, and expressed confidence that a review of the matter by legislative auditors would find no wrongdoing.

Responding to Hickey's request for an audit, Sanders spokeswoman Alexa Henning said in an email last week that "The governor welcomes the audit and encourages legislators to complete it without delay."

State Rep. Jimmy Gazaway, R-Paragould, a co-chair of the Joint Auditing Executive Committee, has said the committee will likely take up the issue at its Oct. 12 meeting.

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