LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Arkansas lawmakers on Thursday voted to audit the purchase of a $19,000 lectern for Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, delving into an unusual controversy that’s prompted questions about the seemingly high cost of the item and claims that the governor’s office violated the state’s open-records law.
The all-Republican executive committee of the Legislative Joint Auditing Committee also voted to audit the Republican governor’s travel and security expenditures that were retroactively shielded from public release under a new Freedom of Information Act exemption Sanders signed last month.
The 39-inch tall (1-meter), blue and wood-paneled lectern was purchased in June with a state credit card for $19,029.25. It has become the focus of intense scrutiny in recent weeks and has gained national attention. 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.
Documents released by the state this week have deepened questions about the purchase, including whether the original plan was for the state GOP to repay the state for it.
“If there’s other documents that contradict things, if there’s other emails, then that will be up to (Legislative Audit) so they can get those so this body can have all the information in a detailed, written report that will be done in a public meeting so we can look at it and make some informed decisions,” Hickey told the panel.
Sanders, who served as press secretary for former President Donald Trump and was inaugurated in January, has dismissed questions about the lectern. Spokeswoman Alexa Henning said in a statement Thursday that Sanders “welcomes the audit and encourages legislators to complete it without delay.” Henning repeated Sanders’ contention that the lectern questions are a “manufactured controversy.”
Tom Mars, an attorney, told Hickey in a letter this month that he has a client with firsthand knowledge that the governor’s office interfered with Freedom of Information Act requests. An email released this week showed an employee of the governor added an undated note to the original June invoice for the lectern that read “to be reimbursed” after the GOP paid the state in September.
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. Beckett Events LLC, the Virginia firm listed as the seller, has not responded to questions about the lectern.
The lectern’s purchase was uncovered by Matthew Campbell, a blogger and attorney who has sued Arkansas State Police and claimed the agency withheld documents about Sanders’ security and travel. Days after Campbell filed his initial lawsuit, Sanders proposed broad exemptions to the state’s Freedom of Information Act that would have restricted public access to a large number of government records.
Sanders signed the travel and security exemptions after she and lawmakers scaled back the original proposal, which faced a backlash from media groups, transparency advocates and some conservatives. The new law covers records going back to June 1, 2022.
The audits will be handled by Legislative Audit, which 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.
Legislative Auditor Roger Norman said the audits will begin Friday if the full Joint Auditing Committee signs off on the request. Rep. Jimmy Gazaway, co-chairman of the executive committee that approved the request, said he hoped to see the audits completed by the end of the year.
“We have broad statutory authority to look at anything and everything as far as public documents and also seek from private entities that deal in transactions with the state,” Norman told the panel before the vote.
The panel defeated a proposal to table the audit of the travel and security records after some lawmakers questioned whether it was too broad of a review.
“It seems a bit like a fishing expedition to me,” Republican Rep. Grant Hodges said.
But Republican Sen. John Payton said he saw the audit as “exercising oversight that was spelled out” in the law Sanders signed restricting her travel and security records.