A $19,000 lectern for Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders sparks call for legislative audit

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Sarah Huckabee Sanders rose to national prominence in part during her time at the lectern as White House press secretary, but the purchase of a $19,000 lectern for the Arkansas governor is undergoing scrutiny and prompting claims that records about it have been altered.

A legislative panel next week will take up a lawmaker’s request for an audit to review the purchase of the lectern, which was bought in June for $19,029.25 with a state credit card. The Arkansas Republican Party reimbursed the state last month for the wood-paneled and blue lectern, which the state received in August.

“From my experience, where we’re at with this particular thing is we need to allow legislative audit go in,” Republican Sen. Jimmy Hickey, who requested the audit, said. “Everyone knows them, they do their work, they’re very thorough and then they produce a detailed report that comes to the Legislature through an open committee.”

Questions about the lectern, its cost, how it was purchased and even whether it existed has dominated political talk in Arkansas in recent weeks. The state’s largest newspaper, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, ran a front-page photo of the lectern last week after Sanders’ office allowed the paper to view it.

Sanders, who served as press secretary for former President Donald Trump, took office in January. The governor has said she welcomes the audit, but has also dismissed the questions surrounding the lectern’s purchase. Sanders’ office has said the reimbursement came from money she had raised for her inauguration.

“People want to manufacture a controversy where there isn’t one,” Sanders told reporters Tuesday. “But this is something the state’s been reimbursed for, and I think there are some people who are always going to be angry and always looking for something to complain about and that’s what they’re picking for right now.”

The lectern’s purchase was first uncovered by Matthew Campbell, an attorney and blogger who has sued State Police for withholding records he had requested about Sanders’ travel and security. Days after Campbell filed his initial suit, Sanders called a special legislative session and proposed broad exemptions to the state’s open records law.

Sanders signed into law a measure restricting the public’s access to her travel and security records after she and lawmakers backed off more widespread exemptions that faced backlash from media groups, transparency advocates and some conservatives.

Campbell has said the concern isn’t just about a lectern, but about how Sanders’ office is spending state money.

“Without an audit and without some more information, we don’t know whether this is a case of they’re too incompetent to be trusted with a state credit card because they don’t know what things should cost, or there’s actual criminality,” Campbell said Wednesday. “Neither is a good answer but it’s enough of an issue that has to be answered.”

Tom Mars, an attorney who served as director of the Arkansas State Police under Sanders’ father, former Gov. Mike Huckabee, has also said that he has a client with firsthand knowledge that Sanders’ office interfered with Campbell’s open records requests.

In a letter he sent to Hickey after the lawmaker requested the audit, Mars said the client wishes to remain anonymous and is willing to give a confidential statement to legislative auditors and allow them to review relevant documents in the client’s possession. According to Mars’ letter, the interference includes the governor’s office altering an invoice from Beckett Events LLC, the Virginia firm listed as the seller of the lectern.

Alexa Henning, a spokeswoman for Sanders, didn’t specifically respond to the allegations in Mars’ letter in a statement that nonetheless dismissed them.

“This is nothing more than a manufactured controversy by left-wing activists to distract from the bold conservative reforms the governor has signed into law and is effectively implementing in Arkansas,” Henning said in a statement.

Hickey’s request also asks for an audit of all matters regarding security and travel records for the governor or her office that were retroactively made confidential by the law she signed last month. The law covered travel and security records going back to June 2022.

Republican Rep. Jimmy Gazaway, who co-chairs the Legislative Joint Auditing Executive Committee, said he supports Hickey’s request.

“Given the fact that this has become a matter of public concern and that the governor says she welcomes an audit and hopes that legislators complete it without delay, yes, I think we should instruct audit staff to handle this matter,” Gazaway said.

Copyright © 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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