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Scrutiny of Arkansas governor’s $19,000 lectern deepens after new records are released

Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders speaks in Little Rock, Feb. 7, 2023.
Al Drago
/
Photo Pool via AP
Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders speaks in Little Rock, Feb. 7, 2023.

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (Via AP) — New public records have widened questions over when Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ office planned to use Republican Party funds to reimburse the state for a $19,000 lectern, which was bought in June using a government credit card.

The Arkansas GOP paid for the lectern in September, but the words “to be reimbursed” were only added later to the original invoice, records released this week show. The undated reimbursement note adds to weeks of scrutiny over the purchase, which has dominated political talk in Arkansas.

A legislative panel is expected to vote this week on a lawmaker’s request for an audit of the lectern’s purchase.

An email about the reimbursement note was among dozens of documents released to The Associated Press on Monday under a Freedom of Information Act request related to the lectern. Republican Sen. Jimmy Hickey, who requested the audit, told the AP that the email “further indicates the need for a full blown audit to get all the facts” but declined to comment further.

The custom blue and wood-paneled lectern was bought using a state credit card in June for $19,029.25, significantly higher than prices listed online for other lecterns. The Republican Party of Arkansas reimbursed the state for the purchase on Sept. 14, and Sanders’ office has called the use of a state credit card for the lectern an accounting error. Sanders’ office said it received the lectern in August.

Sanders, a Republican who served as press secretary for former President Donald Trump and was inaugurated governor in January, has said she welcomes an audit of the lectern but has also dismissed questions about the purchase.

Laura Hamilton, executive assistant and office manager for Sanders, added the note after being instructed that she or the agency that handles state purchasing should put it on the original invoice, according to the email released Monday. The Sept. 15 email written by Department of Transformation and Shared Services employee Cassie Cantlon to her superiors doesn’t say who instructed Hamilton.

“I asked if she wanted to date the note and she stated that she was told not to date it, but to just make the note that the invoice was to be reimbursed,” Cantlon, administrative services manager for the department, wrote in the email.

Sanders’ office acknowledged Tuesday that the note was added, but did not say who told Hamilton to add it.

“A note was added to the receipt so that it would accurately reflect that the state was being reimbursed for the podium with private funding the governor raised for her inauguration and the check was properly dated,” Alexa Henning, a spokesperson for Sanders’ office, said. She called questions about the invoice “nothing more than a manufactured controversy.”

Tom Mars, an attorney, confirmed Tuesday that the note is the example of a public record about the purchase being altered that he referenced in a letter to Hickey. Mars has said he has a client willing to give a confidential statement to lawmakers who has firsthand knowledge that Sanders’ office interfered with open records requests.

Mars said his client is not Cantlon, who did not immediately respond to an email Tuesday afternoon.

The executive committee of the Legislative Joint Auditing Committee will take up Hickey’s request on Thursday.

The AP requested from the state invoices from and communications about Beckett Events LLC, the Virginia company listed as the seller of the lectern. The company did not respond to a message requesting more information about the lectern.

Earlier emails about the purchase released Monday don’t reference plans for the Arkansas Republican Party to reimburse the state. Appearing on the TV program Capitol View on Sunday, state Republican Party Chairman Joseph Wood dismissed questions about the purchase but did not say whether the original plan was for the party to reimburse the state.

Sanders’ office has not said what features contributed to the lectern’s seemingly high cost. The price also included a road case, taxes, shipping and a 3% credit card processing fee.

The lectern’s purchase was first uncovered last month by Matthew Campbell, a lawyer and blogger who has sued the Arkansas State Police and claimed the agency illegally withheld public documents he requested about Sanders’ travel and security. Days after Campbell filed his initial lawsuit, Sanders proposed restricting the public’s access to a broad range of documents.

Sanders signed into law legislation restricting public access to her security and travel records after her original proposal faced backlash from media groups, transparency advocates and some conservatives.

Andrew DeMillo is the Capitol Correspondent for the Little Rock bureau of The Associated Press.