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Audit of $19,000 lectern purchase for Arkansas governor almost done

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, is part of the Legislative Joint Auditing Executive Committee which will investigate the lectern purchase.

From the Associated Press:

Arkansas auditors are nearly done looking into the purchase of a $19,000 lectern for Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders and expect to issue a report on it by the end of March, a state official told lawmakers on Thursday.

Legislative Auditor Roger Norman told a panel that his office has interviewed 20 people about the lectern, which gained national attention and became the focus of intense scrutiny last fall. Sanders’ office has faced questions about the seemingly high price of the lectern, as well as its handling of public records about the purchase.

“Field work will continue at least through next week,” Norman told a subcommittee of the Legislative Joint Auditing Committee, which requested the audit in October. “We have sought to gather all relevant communications and financial records surrounding the purchase and reimbursement of the podium.”

The 3 1/4-foot-tall (1-meter-tall) blue and wood paneled lectern was bought in June with a state credit card for $19,029.25 from an events company in Virginia. The Republican Party of Arkansas reimbursed the state for the purchase on Sept. 14, and Sanders’ office has called the use of the state credit card 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, has dismissed questions about the lectern as a “manufactured controversy,” and the item has not been seen at her public events. The governor’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the audit on Thursday.

It’s not clear how and exactly when the report, which Norman said is being drafted, will be released to the public. Norman, who gave a brief statement on the lectern and did not take any questions from lawmakers, declined to comment after the meeting.

Norman told lawmakers that co-chairs of the Legislative Joint Auditing Committee could order the report’s early release. It could also be released at a special meeting ordered by either co-chair or by a request from 10 members of the panel. Otherwise the report won’t be released until the committee’s next regularly scheduled meeting in June.

The committee’s Republican co-chairs said they had not discussed yet what route they wanted to take once they get the report. Rep. Jimmy Gazaway, a co-chair, said it’s possible they could go back to auditors with additional questions they want addressed first.

“It’s just hard to say, I don’t know at this point,” Gazaway said.

The lectern’s purchase emerged last year just as Sanders was urging lawmakers to broadly limit the public’s access to records about her administration. Sanders ultimately signed a measure blocking release of her travel and security records after broader exemptions faced backlash from media groups and some conservatives.

The purchase was initially uncovered by Matt Campbell, a lawyer and blogger who has a long history of open records requests that have uncovered questionable spending and other misdeeds by elected officials.

Similar lectern models are listed online for $7,500 or less. Sanders has said the one purchased by the state had additional features that contributed to its cost, including a custom height and sound components. The price also included a road case, shipping, handling and a credit card fee.

The Division of Legislative Audit conducts more than 1,000 reviews of state agencies, school districts and local governments every year. The office also has subpoena power for witnesses and documents.

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