Arkansas governor’s $19,000 lectern remains out of sight, but not out of mind with audit underway

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Arkansas governor's $19,000 lectern remains out of sight, but not out of mind with audit underway

Little Rock, Arkansas – October 28, 2023

While unveiling a series of policy initiatives, Arkansas Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders has been enjoying enthusiastic support from her Republican base. Yet, there’s an issue that continues to cast a shadow on her administration, involving a $19,000 lectern acquisition that has sparked an audit and allegations of unauthorized alterations to public records.

Despite the swift pace at which Governor Huckabee Sanders has announced measures such as targeting Chinese-owned farmland and eliminating gender-neutral terms from state documents, the expensive lectern purchase remains an unresolved matter. The governor has neither utilized the lectern at public events nor disclosed its current whereabouts, fueling public intrigue surrounding its procurement.

Governor Sanders has downplayed the controversy, labeling it a “manufactured issue” and accusing reporters of pursuing “tabloid gossip.” However, the public’s curiosity about the lectern’s cost and the circumstances surrounding its acquisition has not waned. This ongoing saga has even captured the attention of late-night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel and gained coverage in The New York Times, potentially affecting Sanders’ national standing as a rising star among next-generation Republican leaders.

Sanders seems eager to redirect the conversation, a strategy reminiscent of the Trump administration’s approach: shift focus and blame the media. Yet, her refusal to provide clear answers to fundamental questions about the lectern continues to fan the flames of speculation. Where is the lectern now?

Who authorized an employee to add the phrase “to be reimbursed” to an invoice after the state Republican Party initially covered the lectern’s cost, which was originally purchased with a state-issued credit card? And why is she not using it for her recent announcements?

When asked about her reluctance to use the pricey lectern at a recent press conference, Sanders replied, “Because I figure if I do, then you would talk about nothing else, instead of the important actions that we’re actually taking today.”

An audit, approved by a legislative panel composed entirely of Republicans, is currently underway, scrutinizing the 39-inch-tall, wood-paneled, blue lectern. The Republican Party of Arkansas reimbursed the state for the purchase on September 14, with Sanders’ office attributing the use of a state credit card for the lectern to an accounting error. Although dismissing questions about the purchase, Sanders has voiced her support for the audit and urged its prompt completion.

The optics of a substantial expenditure on a lectern, juxtaposed with Sanders’ emphasis on fiscal responsibility, create a discordant image. This situation evokes memories of previous criticisms directed at the Pentagon for extravagant expenditures on items like hammers and toilet seats.

Janine Parry, a political science professor at the University of Arkansas, stated, “It’s a minor issue that symbolizes a more significant concern that most Americans are skeptical of, regardless of their political affiliation.”

A photograph published by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, following a limited viewing of the lectern by Sanders’ office, has circulated widely. When The Associated Press requested to view the lectern, Sanders’ office provided an official photo instead. A state GOP spokeswoman stated that the lectern was “available for use.”

The lectern’s purchase came to light just as Sanders was advocating for broader restrictions on public access to records concerning her administration. Eventually, Sanders signed a measure blocking the release of her travel and security records after these broader exemptions faced criticism from media organizations and some conservatives.

The controversy initially arose when attorney and blogger Matt Campbell, known for his extensive freedom-of-information requests, filed a lawsuit over the state’s refusal to release the governor’s travel and security records, mere days before Sanders proposed changes to Arkansas’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

Campbell emphasized the importance of the matter, stating, “Anyone dismissing this as ‘just a lectern’ is missing the bigger picture. It’s about the unanswered questions.”

Concerns also extend to the decision to acquire the lectern from Beckett Events LLC, a Virginia-based company run by political consultant and lobbyist Virginia Beckett, who has not responded to requests for comment. Similar lectern models are available online for $7,500 or less. Sanders argued that the state’s purchase included additional features that raised its cost, such as custom height and sound components, as well as expenses for shipping, handling, and a credit card fee.

In contrast, Arkansas State Democrats acquired their party’s lectern for a mere $5 from the state surplus.

Moreover, the purchase has raised questions about the handling of records. Attorney Tom Mars, who previously served as the head of the State Police under Governor Mike Huckabee, Sanders’ father, offered to testify before lawmakers, claiming firsthand knowledge of the governor’s office interfering with public records requests. This interference allegedly included adding the undated “to be reimbursed” note to the original June invoice in September. Sanders’s office contended that the note was added to reflect the state’s reimbursement.

Campbell has filed a new FOIA lawsuit seeking additional records related to the lectern and challenging the governor’s office’s assertion that emails from Sanders’ husband, Bryan, are exempt from public release.

Following the approval of the audit request, Sanders announced that the state was compelling a subsidiary of a Chinese company to divest itself of 160 acres of farmland and also issued an executive order banning the use of gender-neutral terms by state agencies.

An external group appears to be assisting Sanders in changing the narrative, running a television advertisement commending the governor’s actions. The treasurer of the group responsible for the ad did not respond immediately to requests for comment.

While some in the Arkansas Legislature have remained silent regarding the lectern controversy, Senate President Bart Hester minimized its significance, expressing skepticism that the audit would unveil any wrongdoing. He stated, “I think the audit is much ado about nothing. Those who trust the governor will see it as a victory, while those looking for a story will claim there’s more to it.”

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