Blue Hog blogger sues State Police to force release of information on governor’s travels

Blogger Matt Campbell answers questions from the media in this Nov. 2022 file photo.(Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staci Vandagriff)

Arkansas State Police officials say they can't be forced to publicly account for how much they've spent to guard Republican Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, so crusading attorney Matt Campbell is taking them to court to make police prove the agency is exempt from the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act.

Campbell sued state police on Monday in Pulaski County Circuit Court, petitioning Judge Herb Wright to decide whether the agency is illegally withholding records.

Sanders is not a party to the suit but her spokeswoman, Alexa Henning, denounced the litigation, stating that it puts the governor, her husband and children at risk.

"It's a new low in Arkansas politics for some on the radical left to weaponize FOIA and put the Governor and her family's lives in danger," Henning said in an email.

Cindy Murphy, a representative for the state police, said in a prepared statement that the documentation Campbell wants cannot be released because "the information requested would violate ASP's statutory obligation to ensure the safety and security of the Governor and the First Family."

Over the years, Campbell's Blue Hog investigative reporting using the Freedom of Information Act has uncovered campaign-account abuse by then Republican Lt. Gov. Mark Darr, who resigned, and exposed Faulkner County Circuit Judge Mike Maggio, who has since been convicted of taking bribes on the bench gossiping about a high-profile adoption case in his court.

Campbell has also used the open-records law -- sometimes through litigation to enforce the law -- to obtain records he's used to challenge the hiring practices of former Secretary of State Mark Martin's office and disclose that ex-Little Rock School Superintendent Dexter Suggs plagiarized portions of his 2009 doctoral dissertation.

One of Campbell's Freedom of Information lawsuits won an admission in court from city officials last year that Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott Jr. had been illegally withholding records related to the mayor's efforts to establish an annual festival sponsored by the city.

In 2019, Campbell was the driving force behind a lawsuit against the Pulaski County Special School District that resulted in a landmark Court of Appeals ruling that requires government agencies to provide documents electronically when they have the ability to do so rather than force those making requests to accept more-expensive paper documents.

According to the 18-page lawsuit against the state police, Campbell first sought security communications and financial records from the agency for the past 2 1/2 months involving Sanders and her husband, Bryan Sanders, along with documentation to show how much their security is costing the agency.

When state police declined to release any materials, claiming the documentation was protected from public disclosure due to considerations for the governor's safety, Campbell turned to requested documentation showing how state police have been using their aircraft this year, including requesting passenger lists and flight manifests.

Campbell stated that he got a few records involving occasions when state police hired private pilots to fly the governor. He then expanded his request to include expenditures by state police to accompany Sanders on a June 2023 trade mission to Europe, including plane tickets and hotel rooms for her state police guards.

Last week, Joan Shipley, the chief counsel for the Department of Public Safety, the parent agency of the Arkansas State Police, said none of the materials Campbell had sought could be made public due to security protections for the governor written into the law.

Campbell stated he was able to negotiate the release of a 210-page document from Shipley on Friday but names of passengers on state police flights were withheld, which he maintains was illegal.

His lawsuit states he's now being forced to turn to the court to get authorities to release the information he's been seeking.