Sanders points to height, sound components among $19,000 lectern’s features

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)

Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders provided details Tuesday about some of the "specific features" of the $19,000 lectern purchased by her office earlier this year that is the subject of an expedited review by Arkansas Legislative Audit.

The Republican governor has released little information regarding the lectern and its purchase in the month since blogger Matt Campbell of the Blue Hog Report first reported on its purchase, despite repeated requests from reporters for details and questions from the public on social media.

In a news conference Tuesday during which Attorney General Tim Griffin announced he is ordering a Chinese-state owned company to divest its ownership in about 160 acres of farmland in Craighead County, Sanders was asked what features explain the cost of the podium.

She responded that the lectern's height is "specific."

"I don't know if you've noticed, but women are traditionally a little bit shorter than most of our male counterparts and so that makes a little bit of a difference," Sanders said.

The lectern also incorporates sound components meant to allow multiple media outlets to plug in at the same time, according to the governor.

Such components are meant to improve the quality of sound recorded, Sanders said.

The governor also said the lectern's features include "a number of other things that I'll let come through in the audit process."

Sanders said she didn't use the lectern at Tuesday's event because if she had the media "would talk about nothing else, instead of the important actions that we're actually taking today."

The governor added that it wasn't surprising that "while we are focused on things that actually impact our state and impact Arkansans, the media wants to spend all of their time focused on things that, frankly, don't."

The legislative audit was authorized Friday by the Legislative Joint Auditing Committee in a voice vote without any audible dissenters or debate.

It was initially requested by state Sen. Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana, a former chair of the Legislative Joint Auditing Committee.

State records show a payment receipt dated June 12 to Beckett Events LLC of Arlington, Va. for $19,029.25. An invoice dated June 8 from the Virginia company divides the cost: $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 governor's office.

Beckett Events is an events management firm, and its website doesn't reference the sale of equipment to clients. Sanders said in early October that she would be "happy to" connect reporters "with the vendor that builds and puts these together," but repeated attempts by telephone and email to communicate with anyone associated with Beckett Events have been unsuccessful.

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

Last week, however, AmpliVox published a blog post that described the cost of Sanders' lectern as "staggering," pointing out that similar models were available online "for a mere fraction of the price."

The Republican Party of Arkansas reimbursed $19,029.25 to the state for the cost of the lectern using a check dated Sept. 14, according to state records.

According to the governor's office, the Republican Party used private inaugural funds raised by the governor for that reimbursement.

Asked Tuesday about a handwritten note added last month to a June 8 invoice for the lectern that reads "to be reimbursed," Sanders said it "went through standard protocol for our office on any purchase through the officer manager, and the team that was requesting the purchase to be made."

State records show that although the invoice is dated June 8, an administrative service manager at the Department of Transformation and Shared Services wrote in an email dated Sept. 15 that a governor's aide, Laura Hamilton, was told to make the note.

"Laura [Hamilton] was instructed for either our office or herself to make a note on the original invoice that it was 'to be reimbursed,'" administrator service manager Cassie 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 Sept. 29 letter 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, which revealed the lectern's purchase.

The governor has denied that any records turned over under the law were altered or withheld.

She also has expressed confidence that an audit would turn up no wrongdoing.

Sanders has blamed an accounting error for the dispute.

"I think the process wasn't as clean as it should have been," Sanders said earlier this month.

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