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Questions remain in ongoing scrutiny of Arkansas governor’s purchase of $19K lectern

Sarah Huckabee Sanders addresses the crowd after she was sworn in as the 47th Governor of Arkansas in January 2023.
Karen E. Segrave
/
Arkansas Advocate
Sarah Huckabee Sanders addresses the crowd after she was sworn in as the 47th Governor of Arkansas in January 2023.

From the Arkansas Advocate

Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders and her staff this week continued to defend her office’s purchase of a $19,000 lectern, which has been widely criticized on social media and is the subject of an upcoming legislative audit, but many questions have continued to go unanswered.

Why was the lectern so expensive? Did members of the governor’s staff improperly alter a public record? Why didn’t the state Republican Party buy the lectern in the first place?

Sanders’ office has been accused of meddling in the response to public records requests related to ongoing scrutiny of the office’s spending decisions, including using a state credit card to purchase the lectern in June from Beckett Events LLC, an event design and management firm from Arlington, Virginia, with political ties to Sanders.

On Wednesday, Sanders did not give details when asked by reporters why the lectern cost more than $19,000, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported.

Alexa Henning, Sanders’ communications director, did not answer the same question when asked by the Arkansas Advocate. Henning also did not say why Sanders’ office purchased the lectern from Beckett Events rather than from a manufacturer. Similar lecterns are available online for significantly cheaper.

Sanders said Wednesday that she would “be happy to connect” reporters with the lectern vendor. Upon request, Henning sent the Advocate contact information for Beckett Events founder Virginia Beckett, a lobbyist and consultant.

Beckett did not respond to requests for comment via phone or email on Thursday.

Last week, state Sen. Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana, asked the Legislative Joint Auditing Committee to investigate the purchase of the lectern and the retroactive shielding of several government records after Sanders signed additional Freedom of Information Act exemptions into law in September.

On Friday, Rogers-based attorney Tom Mars sent a letter to Hickey claiming an anonymous whistleblower he was representing could “provide clear and convincing evidence” that Sanders’ office altered and withheld FOIA-accessible documents in recent weeks.

Violating the state FOIA is a Class C misdemeanor, and tampering with public records that are not court records is a Class D felony.

Little Rock attorney and blogger Matt Campbell of the Blue Hog Report has been using the FOIA to scrutinize and report Sanders’ office’s spending behaviors, including the lectern purchase. On Sept. 15, Campbell posted on X (formerly Twitter) an invoice from Beckett Events, which showed that the 3% credit card processing fee of $554 brought the $18,475 lectern purchase to a total of $19,029.

Mars and his client claim that Sanders’ office altered and concealed the original copy of the invoice, removed portions of FOIA-accessible email threads and ordered the exchange of proposed FOIA responses and altered documents via USB drive between Sanders’ office and the state Department of Transformation and Shared Services.

Campbell this week also unearthed an email that Sanders’ Deputy Chief of Staff Kelly Eichler sent to cabinet securities in January, instructing agency officials to contact Henning any time they are “presented with an FOIA request.”

Asked Thursday whether Sanders’ office altered publicly available records or how much input the office has in state agencies’ responses to FOIA requests, Henning said:

“It is absurd to suggest that the Governor’s Office working in coordination with its own cabinet agencies is in any way controversial or that this represents any deviation from standard practices.”

Past gubernatorial administrations have monitored incoming FOIA requests and agency responses.

Sanders called the accusations and criticism directed at her office a “manufactured controversy” on Wednesday and added that the Republican Party of Arkansas reimbursed her office for the lectern with private funds.

Henning repeated the same statements in an email to the Advocate.

“This is nothing more than a manufactured controversy by left wing activists to distract from the bold conservative reforms the governor has signed into law and is effectively implementing in Arkansas,” she said.

The Republican Party of Arkansas hasn’t responded to questions about if it intended to reimburse Sanders’ office for the lectern before the purchase was made public as well as why the party did not buy the lectern itself and donate it to Sanders’ office.

Sanders and Henning have both said they welcome Hickey’s requested audit, and the Legislative Joint Auditing Executive Committee could take up the audit at its Oct. 12 meeting next week.

Tess Vrbin is a reporter with the nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization Arkansas Advocate. It is part of the States Newsroom which is supported by grants and a coalition of readers and donors.