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'#Podiumgate/#Lecterngate' explained

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
The lectern Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders used during her inauguration looks similar to the one she showed the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Questions are swarming Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders after her office allegedly purchased an expensive lectern. But, Sanders insists the controversy has been blown out of proportion.

"This was paid for by private funds," she told Little Rock news station THV 11. "People want to manufacture a controversy where there isn't one. This was something that was paid for by private funds."

But to say, as the governor does, that her office didn't buy the lectern with state dollars, isn't entirely true.

Yes, the Republican Party of Arkansas did reimburse the governor for the podium. But this came after attorney and blogger Matt Campbell requested records about the purchase. The receipt released by the governor's office shows the podium was purchased with taxpayer money.

The price tag: $19,029, a number that most comparable podiums don't even come close to.

This information came to light after Campbell summoned the records using the Freedom of Information Act.

"Because the whole thing just doesn't seem to make sense on its face," he said.

Campbell is a big fan of FOIA. He frequently uses the law to uncover documents made by public officials. His outrage and confusion over the purchase has gained traction on social media where "#lecterngate" and "#podiumgate" are both trending hashtags.

The records he released to the public show that a company called Beckett Events, LLC supplied the podium to Sanders' office. Speaking with journalist Roby Brock, Campbell said he thinks the governor is lying about the purchase of the podium.

"It didn't get reimbursed for over three months until I asked about it. And all of a sudden, an invoice with a hand scrawled 'to be reimbursed' shows up and the GOP cuts a check the next week."

The governor’s spokeswoman, Alexa Henning, has insisted the purchase was made with private funds.

“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," Henning said in a statement to Little Rock Public Radio.

Late last month, the governor's office allowed reporters to see the lectern. A photograph from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette shows what it looks like: stormy blue with light brown wood stain.

Critics on social media have noted it looks similar to a podium the governor used during her inauguration.

The controversy came to a head last week when an article in the Arkansas Times was released.

Tom Mars, an attorney based in Rogers, told the newspaper he represents a whistleblower who claims to have found evidence of concerning behavior in the governor's office. They claim the governor's staffers don’t always communicate through email, which is subject to the Freedom of Information Act, often shuffling documents between each other on flash drives. The whistleblower says documents available through FOIA were being altered before being handed out to the public.

State Sen. Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana, is calling for a legislative audit of the governor's purchases. Sanders says she will cooperate with the investigation.

Josie Lenora is the Politics/Government Reporter for Little Rock Public Radio.