Whistleblower’s attorney claims Arkansas governor’s office altered, withheld public records
Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders stands at a lectern during her inauguration that looks similar to one her office paid $19,000 for this summer. (Karen E. Segrave/Arkansas Advocate)
An anonymous whistleblower claims Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ office improperly altered and withheld public records related to ongoing scrutiny of the office’s spending, according to the whistleblower’s attorney.
Rogers-based attorney Tom Mars sent a letter Friday to state Sen. Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana, offering his client’s testimony and documents to aid a requested legislative audit.
On Wednesday, Hickey asked the Legislative Joint Auditing Committee to investigate Sanders’ office’s purchase of a $19,000 lectern, which has been widely criticized on social media. He also asked the committee to look into the retroactive shielding of several government records after Sanders signed additional Freedom of Information Act exemptions into law this month after a special legislative session.SEPTEMBER 29, 2023 - TOM MARS LETTER TO SEN. JIMMY HICKEY
The letter says Mars’ client “can provide clear and convincing evidence” that Sanders’ office altered and withheld documents that Little Rock attorney and blogger Matt Campbell of the Blue Hog Report requested in recent weeks. Campbell has been scrutinizing and reporting Sanders’ use of the Arkansas State Police airplane for in-state travel as well as her office’s spending habits and purchase of the lectern from an out-of-state events company with a state-issued credit card.
Mars’ client alleges that members of Sanders’ staff, including Communications Director Alexa Henning:
- Altered a FOIA-accessible document “to give it a different meaning” and directed the state Department of Transformation and Shared Services not to share the original document with Campbell.
- Withheld FOIA-accessible documents, including some that reflect Amazon purchases by Sanders’ office.
- Removed portions of FOIA-accessible email threads.
- Directed the Department of Transformation attorney in charge of FOIA responses “to deliver a ‘flash drive’ to the Governor’s Office with TSS’s proposed responses and thereafter returning the sanitized version to TSS on a ‘flash drive.’”
Henning did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Friday afternoon.
Mars and his client claim that Sanders’ office altered and concealed the original copy of an invoice from the event design and management firm Beckett Events LLC, which Campbell posted on X (formerly Twitter) on Sept. 15. The 3% credit card processing fee of $554 brought the $18,475 lectern purchase to a total of $19,029.
Beckett Events founder Virginia Beckett is a Washington, D.C.-area lobbyist. Mars and other critics of Sanders’ administration have posted photos on X linking Sanders to Beckett and another D.C.-area consultant, Hannah Stone of Salem Strategies. Social media posts also show that Stone and Beckett were in France over the summer at the same time as Sanders was visiting on a “trade mission.”
Mars states in his letter to Hickey that if the auditing committee concludes that his client’s allegations are true, those responsible will have likely violated two state laws regarding public records. Violating the state FOIA is a Class C misdemeanor, and tampering with public records that are not court records is a Class D felony.
Hickey sent the request for a legislative audit to committee chairs Sen. David Wallace, R-Leachville, and Rep. Jimmy Gazaway, R-Paragould. The request seeks to examine “all matters, involving the Governor or the Governor’s Office, made confidential” by Act 7 of 2023, a new law that went into effect immediately upon Sanders’ signature and applied retroactively back to June 1, 2022.
Act 7 shields from public access all records and communications concerning the planning or provision of security services to the governor and other state elected officials. Sanders initially supported legislation that proposed much broader exemptions but was narrowed down after bipartisan pushback.
Cortney Kennedy, interim chief legal counsel for Sanders’ office, received Mars’ letter in addition to Hickey. Kennedy defended the proposed exemptions to the FOIA before a state Senate committee earlier this month.
Hickey told the Advocate Friday he had no comment on the letter.
He said he requested the legislative audit partly to clarify how the auditing committee will report its findings to the Legislature, since Act 7 specifies the committee’s ability to do so despite the new exemption to the FOIA.
He also said he believes the audit is necessary in light of “everything with the timeline, the way it’s transpired, the special session we had, the exemption that we made [to the FOIA] and the fact that we made it retroactive.”
“There are some inconsistencies, it looks like, in what the governor’s staff have said and some of the written correspondence that’s been out there,” Hickey said.
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