Foundation covered some expenses for Sanders' trip to Europe

People walk past wheels of an airplane at the Paris Air Show in Le Bourget, north of Paris, in this June 20, 2023 file photo. Arkansas' delegation at the air show included Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders; first gentleman Bryan Sanders; U.S. Sen. John Boozman and U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford, both R-Ark.; and Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott Jr. (AP/Lewis Joly)
People walk past wheels of an airplane at the Paris Air Show in Le Bourget, north of Paris, in this June 20, 2023 file photo. Arkansas' delegation at the air show included Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders; first gentleman Bryan Sanders; U.S. Sen. John Boozman and U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford, both R-Ark.; and Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott Jr. (AP/Lewis Joly)

The Arkansas Economic Development Foundation paid for Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders and first gentleman Bryan Sanders’ trade mission to Europe in June except for certain costs, according to Sanders’ spokeswoman Alexa Henning.

Henning said the governor personally paid for lodging, meals and other expenses in the United Kingdom and Italy and the only expense of the governor paid by the state was a $117 train ticket that was purchased for the governor to visit Arkansas National Guard troops in Germany.

The Arkansas Economic Development Foundation’s payment of expenses for the governor and the first gentleman follows precedent of previous governors, Henning said this week.

No taxpayer money was used for the first gentleman or the first family, she noted.

Henning was asked whether the Arkansas State Police’s reported spending of $433.69 at EuroDisney was for tickets for state police officers protecting Sanders’ family during a visit to EuroDisney or for some other people or some other reason.

Blue Hog Report Blogger Matt Campbell has questioned on X, formerly Twitter, whether the Arkansas State Police didn’t want to release its expenses related to Sanders’ trip to Europe because it included more than $400 in tickets to EuroDisney.

In response, Henning said in a written statement that, “Again, this is the problem with taking a page from the keyboard warriors on Twitter.” “ASP purchased those tickets for EPD [Executive Protection Detail] to fulfill their legal obligation to protect the Governor and her family. Any assertion otherwise is a conspiracy theorist’s fantasy land,” Henning said.

State Department of Public Safety spokeswoman Cindy Murphy added in a written statement, “ASP’s statutory responsibility to protect the governor does not change when the governor leaves Arkansas or conducts personal business.” Sanders’ critics on social media have questioned what was the cost and the need for the first-year Republican governor’s trade mission to Europe.

Asked about the benefit to the state from the trade mission to Europe and whether any new jobs were secured and, if so, when they will be announced, Henning said, “Just as was the case on trips taken to the Paris Air Show by previous Governors, Gov. Sanders met with American, British, French, and German executives to make the case for investing in Arkansas and bringing jobs back to the state.” “She also met with leaders in the aerospace industry, a billion-dollar sector for the state of Arkansas, to recruit new business and retain the companies that are currently in the state,” Henning said. “This is necessary for Arkansas to compete with other state and world leaders who attended and to continue to grow our aerospace industry.” “I won’t get ahead of any announcements, but we are in process on multiple fronts,” Henning said.

Sanders’ predecessor, Republican Asa Hutchinson, also took his first overseas economic development trip as governor to Europe, in June 2015. Hutchinson attended the Paris Air Show and went to Germany to meet with business leaders, according to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette archives.

Gus Vratsinas of Little Rock, president of the Arkansas Economic Development Foundation’s board, said Tuesday that the foundation covered the expense of the governor, the first gentleman, Department of Commerce Secretary Hugh McDonald and Arkansas Economic Development Commission Executive Director Clint O’Neal for a flight upgrade to business class and for the state to host a few dinners.

The foundation’s payments for these expenses will be reported on these officials’ Statements of Financial Interest that are due at the end of January in the secretary of state’s office, he said.

For example, on his 2019 Statement of Financial Interest, Hutchinson reported the Arkansas Economic Development Foundation paid $14,849.67 for his and the first lady’s travel expenses on an Arkansas Economic Development Commission trade mission to Europe in June 2019.

During the Paris Air Show in June 2019, Lockheed Martin and Hutchinson announced an investment of $142 million at its Camden site that would create more than 300 jobs.

The total price tag for gubernatorial European trade missions isn’t cheap.

For example, state officials estimated that then-Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe’s economic development trip to Europe in 2009 would cost the state $79,142.92 for airfare, hotel stays, meals, etc., for the state delegation that met with U.S. Embassy officials and World Trade Center officials in London, Paris and Hamburg. After the trip, they said the private Arkansas Economic Development Foundation would pay an estimated $15,000 for the trip.

Beebe was accompanied by his wife, Ginger; three Arkansas Economic Development Commission officials; two Arkansas State Police troopers; and an aide in the governor’s office. Then-Beebe spokesman the late Matt DeCample said the foundation helped cover the cost for Beebe’s wife and other things.

Beebe was the first Arkansas governor since Bill Clinton to travel to Europe on an economic development and trade mission, the governor’s office said in 2009.

Asked for the state’s total cost for the trip to Europe in June and the Arkansas Economic Development Foundation’s total cost for the trip, Henning referred to documents from the state Department of Commerce and Department of Transformation and Shared Services.

The state Department of Commerce records show the department has paid about $31,500 in expenses for five department employees on the trade mission, and state Department of Transformation and Shared Services records show the state paid about $8,900 in expenses for the governor’s chief of staff, Gretchen Conger, and deputy chief of staff Judd Deere on the trade mission.

“We are correcting the $24,000 figure for the hotel rooms (Europe trip)” for the Department of Commerce on the Arkansas Transparency website, state Department of Finance and Administration spokesman Scott Hardin said in a text message.

“It should have been $12,000. It was duplicated,” Hardin said.

State Department of Public Safety spokeswoman Cindy Murphy said in an email dated Sept. 1 to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that, “After careful review, your request for ‘documents related to the Arkansas State Police’s expenses for the governor’s trip to Europe in June’ has been denied due to security concerns based on the Arkansas State Police’s statutory obligation under [Arkansas Code Annotated] 12-8-108.”

In response to Campell’s request for records related to state police expenditures incurred for sending state police personnel to any European countries in 2023, related to any reimbursements made to state police personnel for expenditures incurred while in or traveling to European countries in 2023, and regarding airline tickets and hotel rooms purchased as part of travel to and from or lodging in any European countries in 2023, state Department of Public Safety Legal Counsel Joan Shipley said in an email dated Aug. 29 to Campbell that, “After a review of any documents that might be responsive to your request …, we are denying your FOIA request due to security concerns based on the Arkansas State Police’s statutory obligation under [Arkansas Code Annotated] 12-8-108 as we did in an earlier request that you made which included this same information.”

Earlier this month, Campbell filed suit against Arkansas State Police, claiming the agency has repeatedly violated the state’s Freedom of Information Act by withholding records on how much providing security for Sanders and her husband has cost the agency, including costs to provide her and her family with security during her June trip to Europe for a trade mission.

But a courtroom showdown between Campbell and state lawyers over Arkansas State Police records involving Gov. Sanders’ travel and security didn’t happen last Thursday because Campbell got sick with covid. Campbell said he was too ill with the coronavirus disease to attend a court hearing on whether the documentation that he asked for was subject to the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act.

Campbell had invoked the open-records law after the Arkansas State Police would not release the records Campbell said he wanted to see to determine how much the agency had been spending 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 had withdrawn his open-records litigation with the intent to refile it later. He has a year to do so.

In last week’s special session, Sanders called for 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. That prompted a backlash across the political spectrum to Sanders’ initial FOIA overhaul proposal, leading to a scaled-back law that withholds from public disclosure records related to her security.

The law 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.

According to Arkansas State Police Director Mike Hagar, the law needed to be retroactive in order to cover documents that included the planning for Sanders’ five-member protection detail, which began six months before the Republican governor took office.

Rep. David Ray, R-Maumelle, the House sponsor of the law, has said that because of Sanders’ high-profile status the first-term governor faced a higher security threat than previous governors.

The trade mission to Europe included the governor’s meetings at stops in London, Paris, and Germany, with most occurring in Paris, Henning said.

The meetings were with Aerojet Rocketdyne, Dassault Falcon Jet, L’Oréal, Nexans, Pernod Ricard, Saint Jean Industries, Sediver, Veolia, Mayr-Melnhof Holz, Walther Arms/ Umare, Lanxess, Drax Group, AirReady MRO, Aviation Repair Technical, Modern Chemical, Mundo Tech, Raytheon, Triumph Group, DuCommun, Lockheed Martin, Boeing and the Arkansas National Guard, she said.

Randy Zook, president and chief executive officer for the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce/Associated Industries of Arkansas, said Wednesday that aerospace is Arkansas’ largest export industry and the Paris Air Show is the world’s largest aerospace trade show, “so it’s critical that Arkansas show up and sell our state to prospective investors.” “Our governor has attended for years because it’s a good way to stand out from the competition and secure high-profile meetings,” he said in a written statement. “The payoff has been clear: new investment, better jobs and businesses from around the world.”

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