Inaugural funds used to reimburse governor's office for purchase of $19,000 podium, records indicate

Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders called a special legislative session focusing on tax rates and the state's Freedom of Information Act during a news conference on Friday, Sept. 8, 2023. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Thomas Metthe)

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 podium with a check dated last Thursday, state records show.

Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders' spokeswoman Alexa Henning said Wednesday the Republican Party of Arkansas used private inaugural funds raised by the governor to reimburse the state.

Blue Hog Report blogger Matt Campbell on Friday posted on X, the social media site formerly known as Twitter, that “Turns out, Sarah Sanders bought an $18,475 custom podium, w/travel case, just before her European trip,” with a copy of the invoice to the governor’s office.

“Even Aaron Schock only spent $5,000 on the pointless lectern that was part of his spending scandal,” Campbell said in the post on X.

State records show a payment receipt June 12 to Beckett Events LLC of Arlington, Va., for $19,029.25 with “To Be Reimbursed” on the document, and an invoice dated June 8 for $18,475 for a 39-inch Custom Falcon Podium with Custom Podium Road Case and a 3% credit processing fee of $554.25. to the office of the governor.

The records and check were obtained from the state Department of Transformation and Shared Services under the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act.

On June 14, Sanders departed on a European trade mission, Henning said at that time.

For the past several days, Sanders’ critics on social media have seized on Campbell’s tweet to sharply criticize the first-year Republican governor, the purchase of the podium and the trip to Europe.

Asked whether the podium was purchased for the European trade mission, use in the governor’s office or for some other reason, Henning said this week in a written statement “it’s an absurd lie that this podium was used for the Europe trade mission, which is the problem with taking out of context snippets from transparency websites and keyboard warriors on Twitter: you do not get the full or accurate picture.

“It’s not strictly for use by the Governor, it will be used by the RPA [Republican Party of Arkansas] for other officials, and it wasn’t paid for with taxpayer money,” Henning said.

Asked why the podium purchase was charged on a credit card resulting in a fee, Henning said “This was an accounting error; we realized it and corrected it. The podium was purchased with inaugural funds not with taxpayer money.”

Asked who made the mistake and how it was made, she said “It was a staff error.

“The state was reimbursed. Which added to the total of transition funds we had already given back to the state, totaling almost $180,000,” she said in written statement.

Henning said the podium is in the governor’s office.

In response, Campbell said Wednesday in a written statement that “Calling this an ‘accounting error’ that they “realized … and corrected” might be the most glaring lie this administration has told.

“They sent emails to have the credit line increased so that they could buy it, and they specifically asked how it should be coded for state accounting,” he said. “They did not even mark the receipt as something “to be reimbursed” until they were sending it to me, which is likely why this wasn’t reimbursed until mid-September, despite being purchased in June.”

Henning countered that “We realized the error, fixed it, and the state was reimbursed.

“These desperate radical left keyboard warriors want to manufacture a controversy where one does not exist,” Henning said in a written statement.

Falcon lecterns have their origins in presidential politics. Sanders is a former White House press secretary for President Trump. Sanders’ father, former Gov. Mike Huckabee, made two unsuccessful bids for the GOP nomination for president.

Created during former President George W. Bush’s administration, the lectern’s slim shape was intended to allow the audience to better see the background behind the president. A 2009 Politico article described the lectern as one that fit “in between” two other presidential lecterns: the large “Blue Goose” typically used during major speeches, and the “toast lectern” used for informal events.

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

Based in Northbrook, Ill., AmpliVox manufactures its podiums at a site in McHenry, Ill.

The cost depends on considerations such as the materials used to make the podium, such as pegboard to hardwood. Some clients have requested the bullet-resistant material Kevlar, according to Roth. At least half of AmpliVox’s podium and lectern client base, especially those in politics, request their logo on the front.

“So, often people want specialty lecterns,” he said.

Cost for logos can depend on their sophistication, as well whether it is removable, and run anywhere from $200 to $2,000.

AmpliVox also has manufactured many podiums meant to fit in road cases, according to the CEO. Screws on top of the lectern are meant to be removed in order to take off its top.

Roth said his company has done custom work “for a lot of political parties.” Outside of politics, Roth said his company often has colleges and religious organizations as clients.

“If somebody wants it we’ll do it, whoever it is,” he said.

This latest skirmish between Sanders and Campbell comes after a courtroom showdown between Campbell and state lawyers over Arkansas State Police records involving the governor’s travel and security didn’t happen last Thursday because Campbell got sick with covid. Campbell said he was too ill with the coronavirus to attend a court hearing on whether the documentation he had requested was subject to the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act.

Campbell, an attorney, had invoked the open-records law after Arkansas State Police would not release the records that Campbell said he wanted to see to determine how much the agency had spent to provide security for the governor and transport her with its airplane.

He stated it was too late to ask for the hearing to be postponed, so he withdrew his open-records litigation with the intent to refile it later. He has a year to do so.

Sanders included in her call for last week’s special session an overhaul of the state’s Freedom of Information Act, saying the 57-year-old law, signed into effect by Winthrop Rockefeller, Arkansas’ first Republican governor, was outdated and needed reworking. In the special session, there was bipartisan public backlash to Sanders’ initial proposal to overhaul the state’s sunshine law, so the legislation that was enacted was scaled back to withhold from public disclosure records related to the governor's security.

Sanders signed into law on Thursday a law that will exempt documents related to her Arkansas State Police detail and “records that reflect the planning or provision of security services provided” to constitutional officers and judges, all the way back to June 1, 2022.

This story has been updated with additional details.