Arkansas governor sued over alleged violations of public records law

Exemption for ‘working papers’ other communications of governor don’t apply, lawsuit says

By: - October 25, 2023 3:27 pm
Sarah Huckabee Sanders addresses the crowd after she was sworn in as the 47th Governor of Arkansas in January 2023. (Karen E. Segrave/Arkansas Advocate)

Sarah Huckabee Sanders addresses the crowd after she was sworn in as the 47th Governor of Arkansas in January 2023. (Karen E. Segrave/Arkansas Advocate)

The lawyer and blogger who first revealed that Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ office paid more than $19,000 for a lectern has sued the governor, alleging her denial of a records request violates the law.

Matt Campbell, who blogs as Blue Hog Report, filed the suit Tuesday, alleging four violations of the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act when the governor’s office denied a records request he submitted on Monday.

In September, Campbell sued Arkansas State Police and ASP Director Col. Mike Hagar over that agency’s refusal to release records related to travel provided to the governor by the ASP plane.

In the latest case, Campbell says he requested all emails since January to or from addresses linked to Bryan Sanders, the first gentleman; Bryan Sanders’ Outlook calendar; and the bills of lading or other shipping and delivery documents connected to the controversial lectern. In a separate request Monday, Campbell also asked for emails the governor’s office sent to anyone making an FOIA request since January, according to the complaint.

Cortney Kennedy, the governor’s office chief legal counsel, denied Campbell’s requests, citing the section of the FOIA that exempts “unpublished memoranda, working papers, and correspondence of the governor.” Kennedy’s denial also cited an attorney general’s opinion that says “copies of emails that are sent by the governor or to his staff are not obtainable from the governor’s office,” the lawsuit states.

Campbell’s complaint disputes Kennedy’s interpretation of the FOIA exemption and the attorney general’s opinion as they apply to the records he requested.

Regarding Bryan Sanders’ emails, Campbell’s lawsuit says the FOIA exemption doesn’t apply because he is not a member of the governor’s staff nor a state employee. Even though Bryan Sanders uses Arkansas government email addresses and a member of the governor’s staff serves as his chief of staff, Bryan Sanders cannot be considered a member of the governor’s staff, so the FOIA exemptions do not apply in this case, the lawsuit argues.

Bryan Sanders, First Gentleman (Governor’s Office)

Bryan Sanders chairs the Natural State Advisory Council, a group created by the governor to promote outdoor recreation and tourism. 

“The defendant bears the burden of proving that any claimed exemption is actually applicable to the records sought,” the complaint says.

The same argument applies to the request for Sanders’ calendar, Campbell says.


Regarding the request for documents showing the delivery of the lectern, the complaint states that “a bill of lading is not a memorandum, working paper or correspondence of the governor.” Rather, the delivery documents are part of a public transaction subject to the FOIA, Campbell argues.

The request for the governor’s office responses to people submitting FOIA requests are not exempt, Campbell argues, because the exemption cited by Kennedy “specifically refers to ‘unpublished … communications of the governor.’” An email or letter from the governor’s staff has been published, in the sense it has been released for public consumption and isn’t a communication from the governor, the complaint states.

“The defendant’s proposed interpretation of the exemption, that every communication and other record in their possession is exempt from disclosure, flies in the face of nearly 60 years of AFOIA case law, ignores the plain language of the statute, and is contrary to the stated purpose of the AFOIA,” the complaint says.

Campbell asks for an expedited hearing on the suit as provided by the Freedom of Information Act.


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Sonny Albarado
Sonny Albarado

In his 50-year career, Sonny Albarado has been an investigations editor, a business editor, a city editor, an environmental reporter and a government reporter at newspapers in Arkansas, Tennessee and Louisiana. He retired from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in 2020 after serving as projects editor for 12 ½ years and returned to professional journalism in 2022 to lead the Arkansas Advocate. He is a former national president of the Society of Professional Journalists and a current member of the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communication.