Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders at her inauguration on Jan. 10, 2023, stands at a lectern similar to one her office purchased and that has embroiled her in controversy. (Karen E. Segrave/Arkansas Advocate)
Well. Well. Well. What we’ve got heah is … failure to communicate.
That line from the 1967 movie Cool Hand Luke resonates this week as we consider the continuing saga of our guvnuh’s fancy lectern, what the Wall Street Journal described Monday as “an unusual political scandal.”
Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders could have avoided the steaming pile of #lecterngate (or #podiumgate as some label it) if only she and her comms team had been better communicators. If only they’d offered a reasonable explanation of the unusually high-priced lectern beyond “an accounting error.” If only they hadn’t reflexively dismissed questions raised by Blue Hog Report’s Matt Campbell and others as attacks from “radical left-wing keyboard warriors.”
The lockstep repetition of “manufactured controversy” to describe the many-tentacled lectern episode from comms director Alexa Henning, Sanders and others is not communication. It’s the equivalent of repeating “nah-nah-nah” while holding your fingers in your ears to drown out something you don’t want to hear.
The fact is Campbell did what any self-respecting reporter should do: use Arkansas’ Freedom of Information Act to look into how government officials are spending taxpayers’ dollars. What he found sparked his curiosity, so he asked questions. That he did so on social media or that he’s a known left-leaning blogger doesn’t make his questions any less valid. That local and national media outlets paid attention only validates the initial curiosity.
The imbroglio also captured the attention of state Sen. Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana, who late last month asked the Legislative Joint Auditing Executive Committee to look into the purchase of the $19,000 speaker’s stand as well as other gubernatorial expenditures that are now secret because of changes made last month in the state’s public records law. That committee meets Thursday. Sanders has said she welcomes an audit. I guess we’ll find out Thursday if lawmakers will accept that invitation.
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If you’re inclined to be charitable toward Sanders, you might think this controversy is just a rookie mistake; someone paid for a lectern out of the wrong account. But subsequent revelations — that the Republican Party of Arkansas belatedly decided to pay for it, that the lectern came from a consulting firm owned by a pal of Sanders, that an anonymous whistleblower claims to have evidence of public-records tampering — leads one to conclude there’s something much more serious afoot.
A lot of social media buzz has been generated about ties between Sanders and two political consultants and Sanders’ trade mission to the Paris Air Show in June and its possible connection to the lectern purchase. But connecting those dots remains speculative.
The Advocate and other media have given Sanders’ office ample opportunity to answer the many questions raised by the lectern purchase, only to get canned non-answers.
Even Arkansas Republican Party Chair Joseph Wood never responded directly to Capitol View host Roby Brock’s repeated questions on Sunday about when the state GOP got involved in the lectern purchase. Before Wood became party chair in September, he was secretary of the state Department of Transformation and Shared Services (TSS), the agency that handles state purchasing.
On Tuesday, Campbell and Jay Orsi, another X/Twitter chronicler of l’affaire lectern, posted an email from a TSS employee to her supervisors that appears to show the invoice for the lectern was modified in mid-September, about the same time Campbell was digging into the purchase.
I don’t want to bury the lede at all, so let’s start with the money shot.
An email from TSS employee Cassie Cantlon to her higher-ups, the very day TSS provided the initial lectern docs, explicitly stating that Sarah Sanders office altered the Beckett Events invoice. pic.twitter.com/Bep2cO8wcM
— Matt Campbell (@BlueHogReport) October 10, 2023
That could be proof of tampering with a public record, but I’d still like to know:
- Did the lectern really cost $19,000 and why?
- Why didn’t the purchase go through normal purchasing procedures?
- Did the Arkansas GOP always intend to “reimburse” the state for the lectern’s cost? If not, when was the decision made, and who approved it? (See Tuesday’s tweet.)
- If, as many Sanders critics suspect, the payment was for something else, why try to hide it as a purchase? Whatever happened to paying for “consulting services”?
- And, why, oh why, didn’t the expert communicators in the governor’s office just come clean from the outset?
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