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Panel OKs audit of Arkansas governor’s lectern purchase, some FOIA-exempt records

Arkansas Sen. Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana, asks the Legislative Joint Auditing Executive Committee on Thursday, Oct. 12, 2023 to approve his request for an audit into Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ purchase of a $19,000 lectern and the retroactive shielding of certain government expenses from public access. The committee approved both requests.
Tess Vrbin
Arkansas Advocate
Arkansas Sen. Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana, asks the Legislative Joint Auditing Executive Committee on Thursday, Oct. 12, 2023 to approve his request for an audit into Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ purchase of a $19,000 lectern and the retroactive shielding of certain government expenses from public access. The committee approved both requests.

From the Arkansas Advocate:

Arkansas lawmakers approved a request Thursday and Friday for a nonpartisan investigation into Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ purchase of a $19,000 lectern, as well as expenditures by the governor’s office that were recently made private by a new law.

State Sen. Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana, asked the Legislative Joint Auditing Committee last month to authorize a probe of the lectern purchase by the Arkansas Legislative Audit, an independent body with the authority to investigate spending by any state or local government entity.

Hickey narrowed his second request after members of the Joint Auditing Executive Committee said Thursday that it was too broad. He’d initially asked the Auditing Committee to look into “all matters… made confidential” by Act 7 of 2023, which shields from the public all records and communications concerning the planning or provision of security services to the governor and other state elected officials, as far back as June 1, 2022.

The Executive Committee approved the audit of “significant expenditures involving the governor’s office” that Act 7 exempts from the state Freedom of Information Act, said Rep. Jimmy Gazaway, R-Paragould.

On Friday, the full Auditing Committee approved the Executive Committee’s report with no dissent. The audit is expected to start immediately, said Gazaway, co-chair of the full committee and executive committee.

Little Rock attorney and blogger Matt Campbell of the Blue Hog Report revealed Sept. 15 on X (formerly Twitter) that Sanders’ office bought the lectern and a carrying case in June from Beckett Events LLC, a Virginia-based event design and management firm with political ties to Sanders. The invoice Campbell received via the FOIA showed the 3% processing fee of $554 on a state-issued credit card brought the $18,475 lectern purchase to a total of $19,029.

Campbell had already been using the FOIA to scrutinize and report the governor’s office spending when Sanders called a special legislative session and supported several proposed exemptions to the FOIA.

After bipartisan pushback, legislators narrowed the proposal, and Sanders signed Act 7 on Sept. 14. The same day, the Republican Party of Arkansas wrote a check to Sanders’ office for the cost of the lectern.

The timing of the special session, the retroactive FOIA exemption and the reimbursement for the lectern by the state GOP all make an audit necessary, Hickey said Thursday, to address public suspicion of decisions by Sanders’ office and “start with a clean slate and get this behind us.”

He added that one unanswered question about the lectern is who owns it, since it was apparently purchased with state funds despite the reimbursement three months later.

“There is a process in place for how you dispose of state assets,” Hickey said. “Of course, we know that this institution only runs as good as all of our procedures are in place and we make sure that they’re followed.”

Act 7 “does not limit the ability of Arkansas Legislative Audit to report information it obtains to the Arkansas General Assembly,” according to the legislation. Hickey said the state should put this clause to use.

“I just believe that it’s going to be prudent for this body if we go ahead and try to clean it up, for a lack of [better] words,” he said.

Alleged misconduct

On Sept. 29, two days after Hickey requested the audit, Rogers-based attorney Tom Mars said he represents an anonymous client who can “provide clear and convincing evidence” to the Legislative Joint Auditing Committee that Sanders’ office altered and withheld FOIA-accessible records in recent weeks.

According to Arkansas law, violating the state FOIA is a Class C misdemeanor, and tampering with public records that are not court records is a Class D felony.

On Tuesday, Campbell posted an email on X that indicated Laura Hamilton, Sanders’ executive assistant, was instructed to alter the Beckett Events invoice for the lectern shortly before Campbell received it via FOIA request.

Campbell and Mars both said the email and others from the Department of Transformation and Shared Services support Mars’ client’s allegations, which have received attention from national media outlets.

Sanders and her communications director, Alexa Henning, have both called the scrutiny of the lectern purchase a “manufactured controversy” and said they welcome the audit.

The Republican Party of Arkansas has not responded to multiple requests for comment on its reimbursement of the lectern, including a request from the Advocate on Tuesday about the newly revealed emails.

Hickey said Thursday in response to questions from state Rep. Johnny Rye, R-Trumann, that he would not have asked for the audit if the Arkansas GOP had bought the lectern itself.

Virginia Beckett, the consultant and lobbyist who runs Beckett Events, has also not responded to requests for comment.

Arkansas Legislative Audit has the ability to request documents from private entities, such as Beckett Events, during an audit, lead auditor Roger Norman told the executive committee.

“They are an out-of-state entity, so there may be some issues that arise there, but I do not anticipate having any issues with getting documentation,” Norman said.

No members of the executive committee opposed the motion to audit the lectern purchase. Two members voted against looking into records shielded by Act 7, even after Hickey narrowed the scope of the request.

Gazaway told reporters he hopes the audit concludes by the end of the year but cannot predict how long it might take.

“Ultimately… you don’t want [auditors] to compromise anything, you want them to be thorough and take all the time that they need,” he said.

The committee also authorized Arkansas Legislative Audit to develop procedures for reporting the findings of the requested audit to the Legislature without making them FOIA-accessible and counteracting Act 7.

Norman said he expects to have a draft procedure ready for the Legislative Joint Auditing Committee to approve at its November meeting.

Hickey praised the executive committee’s decisions Thursday.

“This is what the Legislature’s about, and we served the public well today,” he said.

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.