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Prosecutor declines charging governor over lectern purchase

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
At Sarah Huckabee Sanders' inaugural address, she used a lectern similar to the one in the investigation.

A prosecutor asked to look at a recent audit of a controversial tax-funded lectern purchase will not move forward with charges. In a letter, Pulaski County Prosecutor Will Jones said he did not think the report proved that a law been broken.

Last June, the office of Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders spent over $19,000 on a lectern using a state credit card. Afterward, documents pertaining to the purchase were requested by blogger Matt Campbell through the Freedom of Information Act. Then, the Republican Party of Arkansas refunded the cost. The receipt for the purchase has a handwritten note that says “to be reimbursed.”

The purchase set off months of controversy. The Arkansas Legislative Audit conducted an investigation into the lectern. They released a detailed report in January, which said the governor had engaged in “potential non-compliance with state law.” It also said she needed to be more careful with purchases.

The report said part of the cost for the podium came from consulting fees and a road case that came with the podium. The governor made the purchases on a state credit card set aside for “transition services.” The podium was initially designed to be the height of the governor's elbows, but emails indicate the firm failed at completing the request.

Sanders responded calling the audit “deeply flawed.”

Prosecutor Will Jones examined the report. On Friday, he wrote a letter saying he did not find evidence of criminality. Jones addressed claims that the governor violated the Freedom of Information Act and state budget laws. He also addressed claims that the handwritten “to be reimbursed” note was an example of illegal tampering of public records.

First, Jones said alleged crimes involving the Freedom of Information Act could not be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. The documents regarding the podium purchase were handed over through the Freedom of Information Act and then later to the legislative Joint Auditing Committee. There is a 13-page discrepancy between these two document submissions. Jones did not think this was concerning or evidence of a crime.

“Although the number of pages differ,” he said. “There is no evidence to show that the employee’s failure to provide the additional thirteen pages was a gross deviation from the standard of care.”

He also said he has no way of knowing which employee was responsible for responding to the FOIA request, making it impossible to press charges.

Another allegation concerned whether the governor broke the state's General Accounting and Budgetary Procedures Law. Jones said it's “unclear” as to whether a governor is even obligated to follow this law, because her job is classified as a constitutional officer. He also said someone can only break this law if they knowingly violate its provisions. He said there is no evidence to show knowledge on the part of the governor or her office in regards to breaking the law.

On the third allegation, Jones said the “to be reimbursed” message did not constitute criminal behavior. He said the executive assistant who wrote the note did not “knowingly” alter a public record, nor, he said, did they “erase, obliterate, remove, destroy, or conceal a public record.” Jones also said "the added notation was not false” as the lectern was reimbursed by the Republican Party of Arkansas after it was written.

In a statement, the governor's spokeswoman Alexa Henning said "The review issued today confirms what the governor’s office said all along: we followed the law, reimbursed the state with private funds, and this was nothing more than a ridiculous controversy manufactured by the far left."

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