Records indicate governor’s office directed purchase of $19,000 lectern

Sanders’ office directed buy

Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders speaks Jan. 19 during an event at the state Capitol in Little Rock.
(File Photo/Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staci Vandagriff)
Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders speaks Jan. 19 during an event at the state Capitol in Little Rock. (File Photo/Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staci Vandagriff)

The purchase of the $19,000 lectern for use by Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders was directed by the governor's office, records indicate.

Emails obtained by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette through an Arkansas Freedom of Information Act request show aides to the governor and staff from the Department of Transformation and Shared Services directed the purchase of the lectern.

Sanders has said repeatedly the lectern was not paid for by taxpayers because the Republican Party of Arkansas reimbursed the state for the cost of the lectern.

"I think the process wasn't as clean as it should have been," Sanders said last week. "Again, it has been reimbursed by private funds. Nothing was paid for by taxpayers, and that was the error on the front end."

[DOCUMENT: Read Email from Cantlon about Hamilton's notations »]

Emails from state employees show the purchase of the lectern was made June 12 using a state credit card, and that the Republican Party of Arkansas' check reimbursing the state for its cost is dated Sept. 14.

On Sept. 15, Cassie Cantlon, administrative service manager at the Department of Transformation and Shared Services, wrote in an email that one of the governor's aides, Laura Hamilton, was told to make a note on the invoice for the lectern that the purchase was to be reimbursed. Cantlon said a check from the Republican Party of Arkansas was attached to the email.

"Laura [Hamilton] was instructed for either our office or herself to make a note on the original invoice that it was 'to be reimbursed'," Cantlon wrote. "As you can see on the attachment, she made the note. I asked if she wanted to date the note and she stated that she was told not to date it, but to just make the note that the invoice was to be reimbursed."

[DOCUMENT: Read Email from Cantlon about 20K limit »]

Cantlon's email was written to James Caldwell, chief fiscal officer at Transformation and Shared Services, and a carbon copy was sent to Jason Hogland, controller at the Transformation and Shared Services, and a blind copy to a personal email account for Cantlon.

"A note was added to the receipt so that it would accurately reflect that the state was being reimbursed for the podium with private funding the Governor raised for her inauguration and the check was properly dated," according to a statement from Sanders' spokeswoman Alexa Henning in response to a question from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette regarding Cantlon's email. "This is nothing more than a manufactured controversy by left-wing activists to distract from the bold, conservative reforms the governor has signed into law and is effectively implementing in Arkansas."

The emails were first reported on by Matt Campbell, an attorney and publisher of the Blue Hog Report. The lectern has been the center of controversy since Campbell first published an invoice for the $19,000 lectern on X, formally known as Twitter.

State Sen. Jimmy Hickey Jr., R-Texarkana, has requested a legislative audit into the purchase of the lectern. Legislative Joint Auditing's Executive Committee is likely to take up the issue.

DOCUMENT: Read Podium reimbursement documents and check »]

Henning has said that "The governor welcomes the audit and encourages legislators to complete it without delay."

In a May 31 email, Hamilton, the executive assistant and office manager for the Republican governor, said Sanders and deputy chief of staff Judd Deere approved of the lectern's purchase.

"We have pricing on a custom podium for the governor. The vendor we are using requires payment up front for this custom item," Hamilton wrote in an email to Jason Hogland, controller at the Arkansas Department of Transformation and Shared Services. "Both the governor and Judd have used this vendor before, so they approve this purchase."

Asked Tuesday when Sanders and Deere had previously used Beckett Events' services, Henning referred to a separate company, Salem Strategies.

"Salem Strategies did work for the Sarah for Governor campaign, and ran logistical operations for the Governor's inauguration and the Governor's State of the Union response, none of these contracts were at taxpayer expense," Henning said in a statement.

Salem Strategies is a public relations firm based in Alexandria, Va., founded by Hannah Stone. Stone and Beckett Events founder Virginia Beckett said in a 2021 podcast that they had teamed up.

[DOCUMENT: Read Hamilton email on podium pricing »]

According to financial disclosure records, the Republican Party of Arkansas paid Salem Strategies $105,000 on Dec. 27, 2022, and $56,568 on Jan. 24. Sanders' gubernatorial campaign also paid at least $63,041 to Salem Strategies for consulting work.

Sanders did not provide specific details about the purchase last week when asked why the lectern cost $19,000, but offered to connect reporters "with the vendor that builds and puts these together." When asked why the state bought the lectern from Beckett Events, Henning said: "The podium is a similar model to the one that was used during her inauguration."

When asked for the name of the vendor, Henning gave the name of the company that was listed on the invoice, Beckett Events. The company describes itself on its website as a "full-service events management company." Its listed services include event concept, design and management.

The website doesn't reference the sale of equipment to clients.

[DOCUMENT: Read Hamilton email on not being allowed to pre-pay »]

The listed cost for a Falcon lectern on the site of one manufacturer, AmpliVox Portable Sound Systems, ranges from $6,962 without a microphone to $7,553 for models that include a microphone. However, AmpliVox founder and CEO Don Roth said Sept. 20 the cost for custom models can "absolutely" reach $20,000.

Roth declined to provide further comment Monday when contacted again by a Democrat-Gazette reporter. An email sent to Roth seeking comment also wasn't returned.

A voicemail and email sent to Virginia Beckett seeking additional details about the lectern and its purchase weren't returned Monday. A voicemail sent to Beckett in late September also wasn't returned.

[DOCUMENT: Read Hamilton email to Hogland on price for custom podium »]

Joseph Wood, who in August was elected chairman of the Republican Party of Arkansas, was asked by Roby Brock of Talk Business and Politics on KARK-TV's Capitol View program Sunday if the plan from the beginning was for the GOP to reimburse the state for the lectern.

"The GOP has always done that," Wood said. "They buy the [furniture] for the governors. And [before] they did it for Gov. Sanders, they did it for Gov. Hutchinson. Again, it's a manufactured crisis."

Wood did not respond to a request from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette to be interviewed for this article.

Information for this article was contributed by Michael R. Wickline, Josh Snyder and Tony Holt of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, and Doug Thompson of the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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