Emails support whistleblower’s claim that Arkansas governor altered public records, attorney says

Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ executive assistant was told to mark an invoice “to be reimbursed” three months after the fact, a Transformation and Shared Services employee wrote

By: - October 10, 2023 9:21 pm
Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders stands at a lecturn that looks similar to one her office paid $19,000 for this summer.

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)

Newly revealed documents indicate that Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ office violated state law by altering public records, which aligns with accusations an anonymous whistleblower made last month, according to the person’s lawyer.

Sanders’ office has been under scrutiny for several weeks for its spending decisions, particularly for purchasing a $19,000 lectern in June from a Virginia-based event design and management firm with political ties to the governor.

The whistleblower, represented by Rogers-based attorney Tom Mars, has claimed that Sanders’ office altered the invoice reflecting the purchase of the lectern. Tampering with public records that are not court records is a Class D felony in Arkansas.

Laura Hamilton, Sanders’ executive assistant, “was instructed… to make a note on the original invoice that it was ‘to be reimbursed,’” according to a Sept. 15 email from Cassie Cantlon, fiscal support manager at the state Department of Transformation and Shared Services.

Whistleblower’s attorney claims Arkansas governor’s office altered, withheld public records

Hamilton was also told not to date the note on the invoice, Cantlon wrote to TSS chief fiscal officer James Caldwell and controller Jason Hogland.

Little Rock attorney and blogger Matt Campbell of the Blue Hog Report received Cantlon’s email via a Freedom of Information Act request and posted it on X (formerly Twitter) Tuesday morning in a thread containing additional emails between Hamilton and TSS staff.

The Republican Party of Arkansas reimbursed Sanders’ office for the lectern with private funds in September. Campbell noted in his thread and in a separate post that there was no mention in any of the emails, which were sent between May and September, that the Arkansas GOP planned to pay for the lectern in any way.

The party has not responded to multiple requests for comment, including a request from the Advocate on Tuesday about the emails.

Mars said in an interview that the emails prove there was never “any intent to have the party reimburse” Sanders’ office.

Alexa Henning, Sanders’ communications director, has said the use of state funds to purchase the lectern was an “accounting error.” She has also denied any wrongdoing by Sanders’ office, saying it works with cabinet agencies according to “standard practices.”

On Tuesday, Henning said in an email that the note “was added to the receipt so that it would accurately reflect that the state was being reimbursed for the podium with private funding … and the check was properly dated.”

“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, repeating verbatim a statement she made last week.

Mars said Henning’s claim about the note was “a bald-faced lie.”

“Witnesses lie all the time, but the evidence never lies,” said Mars, a former Arkansas State Police director and Walmart general counsel. “Everything without exception that Gov. Sanders and Alexa Henning have said about ‘Lecterngate’ since day one has been proven to be false by evidence.”

Mars and his anonymous client have also claimed that Sanders’ office removed portions of FOIA-accessible email threads. Violating the state FOIA is a Class C misdemeanor.


Requested audit

Campbell has been using the state FOIA to scrutinize and report Sanders’ office’s spending behaviors, including the lectern purchase, in recent weeks.

Last month, after Campbell called into question Sanders’ use of the State Police aircraft for in-state travel, Sanders called a special legislative session in which Republican lawmakers proposed several exemptions to the FOIA. After bipartisan pushback, only one exemption became law.

On Sept. 15, Campbell posted on X an invoice from Beckett Events LLC, which showed that the 3% processing fee of $554 on a state-issued credit card brought the $18,475 lectern purchase to a total of $19,029.

Later in September, state Sen. Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana, asked the Legislative Joint Auditing Committee to investigate both the purchase of the lectern and the retroactive shielding of several government records by the new FOIA law.

Mars contacted Hickey on Sept. 29, saying his client could “provide clear and convincing evidence” of Sanders’ office altering and withholding public records.

Governor: We still have questions about that lectern

The Legislative Joint Auditing Executive Committee will take up Hickey’s audit request at its Thursday meeting, said Rep. Jimmy Gazaway, R-Paragould, the committee’s House chair. He did not say whether the audit has already begun.

Sanders and Henning have both said they welcome the audit. They have not given details when asked why the lectern cost more than $19,000.

Sanders said last week that she would “be happy to connect” reporters with the lectern vendor. Virginia Beckett, the consultant and lobbyist who runs Beckett Events, has not responded to multiple news outlets’ requests for comment.

Henning also has not said why Sanders’ office purchased the lectern from Beckett Events rather than from a manufacturer. Similar lecterns are available online for significantly cheaper.

Campbell said in an interview that this is the “weirdest” of the remaining unanswered questions about the lectern purchase. If Sanders’ office had been determined to pay Beckett $19,000, the money could have been a consulting fee, which still might have raised some eyebrows, he said.

The release of more and more public records has made the behavior of Sanders’ office look less like incompetence and more like intentional misconduct, Campbell said.

“The best-case scenario is that the $19,000 all went to the purchase of the lectern, which just means [Sanders and her staff] are too incompetent to be trusted to purchase such a thing,” he said.


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Tess Vrbin
Tess Vrbin

Tess Vrbin came to the Advocate from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, where she reported on low-income housing and tenants' rights, and won awards for her coverage of 2021 flooding and tornado damage in rural Arkansas. She previously covered local government for The Commercial Dispatch in Mississippi and state government for the Columbia Daily Tribune in Missouri.