Legislative Joint Auditing Committee authorizes expedited review of lectern purchase by governor’s office

Sanders’ $19,000 buy draws audit

FILE — Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders is shown in this Nov. 16, 2022 file photo. (AP/Phelan M. Ebenhack)
FILE — Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders is shown in this Nov. 16, 2022 file photo. (AP/Phelan M. Ebenhack)


The Legislative Joint Auditing Committee on Friday authorized Arkansas Legislative Audit to conduct an expedited review of the purchase of a lectern for about $19,000 from Beckett Events LLC by Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders' office.

In a voice vote without any audible dissenters or debate, the full committee voted to approve its executive committee's recommendation to conduct the review of the lectern purchase, requested by state Sen. Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana, who is a former chair of the Legislative Joint Auditing Committee.

Hickey told the executive committee on Thursday an investigation was needed because members of the public have questioned the purchase. Blogger Matt Campbell of the Blue Hog Report first reported on the lectern's purchase, publishing an invoice for the item on Sept. 15 on X, formerly known as Twitter.

State records show a payment receipt dated June 12 to Beckett Events LLC of Arlington, Va., for $19,029.25 on the document, and an invoice dated June 8 for $18,475 for a 39-inch custom Falcon Podium with a custom podium road case and a 3% credit processing fee of $554.25 to the office of the governor.

Although the invoice describes the item as a "podium," a term often used to describe a piece of furniture behind which a person stands for reading or speaking, the actual term for such an item is "lectern."

The Republican Party of Arkansas' Special Project Account 1 reimbursed $19,029.25 to the state of Arkansas for the cost of the governor's office purchasing a lectern with a check dated Sept. 14, state records show. The Republican Party of Arkansas used private inaugural funds raised by the governor for the reimbursement, according to the governor's office.

In addition to authorizing auditors' review of the purchase of the lectern by Sanders' office, the Legislative Joint Auditing Committee on Friday approved the executive subcommittee's recommendation to approve Hickey's request to review "all matters limited to expenditures involving the governor or the governor's office made confidential by Section 4 (a) of Act 7 of the First Extraordinary Session of 2023." Section 4 (a) of Act 7 made Section 1 of the act retroactive to June 1, 2022.

Section 1 of Act 7 expanded the information exempted under the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act to include information compiled or possessed by the Division of State Police concerning the "duties performed by the division" under Arkansas Code Annotated 12-8-108 (a) that makes the division responsible for the safety and security of the governor and her family.

Section 3 of Act 7 also created an Arkansas Freedom of Information Act exemption for records that reflect the planning or provision of security services provided to the governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, secretary of state, state treasurer, state auditor, state lands commissioner, state lawmakers, state Supreme Court justices or state Court of Appeals judges. That exemption also is retroactive to June 1, 2022, under Act 7.

The Legislative Joint Auditing Committee on Friday also approved the executive committee's recommendation to approve Hickey's request for Arkansas Legislative Audit to develop procedures for reporting matters discovered during the staff's review of "all matters limited to expenditures involving the governor or the governor's office made confidential by Section 4 (a) of Act 7 of the First Extraordinary Session of 2023," and for the proposed procedures to be submitted to the executive committee for review and approval at its next meeting Nov. 8.

Arkansas State Police Director Mike Hagar has said the retroactive clause was needed in Act 7 because planning for the protection of Sanders and her family began long before she took office.

Asked whether he is seeking information on the cost of the Arkansas State Police's expenses on the governor's trade mission to Europe in June as part of the auditors' review of the information made confidential under Act 7, Hickey said Friday that "I have nothing specific as it relates to that."

Among other things, he noted the Republican Party's reimbursement for the lectern came on the same day, Sept. 14, that lawmakers adjourned the special session that Sanders had called to amend the Freedom of Information Act to exempt records related to her security from disclosure.

"I just feel that for us to ever to get [to] the very bottom of this that we are going to have to go through and show the public that there was no inconsistencies whatsoever with that," Hickey said Friday.

Sanders' spokesperson Alexa Henning said Thursday the governor welcomes the audit and encourages legislators to complete it without delay.

"This is nothing more than a manufactured controversy by left wing activists to distract from the bold conservative reforms the legislature has passed and the governor has signed into law and is effectively implementing in Arkansas," Henning said in a written statement.

Campbell said Friday in a written statement that regardless of their claims, no one is "manufacturing a controversy."

"We're simply pointing out that the Governor's Office spent $19,000 in state funds on a lectern and didn't seek reimbursement from the Arkansas Republican Party until three months later, after the purchase became public knowledge," he said. "The people of Arkansas recognize this, and I am happy to see that the Republicans on the Legislative Audit committee do as well. Maybe someday the Governor will stop blaming others for the bad press that her own actions keep bringing upon her and her office."

State records show Cassie Cantlon, an administrative service manager at the Department of Transformation and Shared Services, wrote in an email dated Sept. 15 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 in the email. "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."

Attorney Tom Mars said in a letter dated Sept. 29 to Hickey that he represents a client who claims the governor's office interfered with the response to Campbell's Freedom of Information Act requests.

Sanders has denied that any records turned over under the law were altered or withheld, and expressed confidence a review of the matter by legislative auditors would find no wrongdoing. She also has attributed the dispute to an accounting error.

"I think the process wasn't as clean as it should have been," Sanders said last week.

Asked whether Mars' client, who claims the governor's office interfered with the response to Campbell's Freedom of Information Act requests, would be consulted by Arkansas Legislative Audit, Hickey said Friday, "That's up to Legislative Audit.

"I know that they usually don't leave any stone unturned, so I have full confidence in Legislative Audit," he said.

Asked whether the Arkansas Legislative Audit's review would be completed by Jan. 1, Hickey said he doesn't know when auditors will complete their work.

"Accurateness is what is most important, and I know that's what legislative audit will do," he said.

Information for this article was contributed by Neal Earley of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.


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