Auditor: Investigation into Arkansas governor’s lectern purchase unlikely to end this year

Nonpartisan government investigators will “take whatever time it takes to make sure we do a thorough job,” Lead Auditor Roger Norman says

By: - November 8, 2023 5:00 pm

Frank Arey, a staff attorney with Arkansas Legislative Audit, discusses an ongoing audit into Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ controversial lectern purchase and effort to shield records related to her security detail before the Legislative Joint Auditing Executive Committee on Wednesday, November 8, 2023. (Screenshot courtesy of Arkansas Legislature)

The investigation into Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ controversial lectern purchase and effort to shield records related to her security detail likely won’t be finished this year, the lead auditor at Arkansas’ nonpartisan agency that investigates government spending said Wednesday.

Sanders’ office drew widespread attention in September for the purchase of a $19,000 lectern and carrying case from a Virginia-based event design and management firm with political ties to Sanders.

Attorney and blogger Matt Campbell of the Blue Hog Report has spent months using the state Freedom of Information Act to report and scrutinize Sanders’ use of state funds and resources. He posted an invoice on X (formerly Twitter) on Sept. 15 that showed the lectern was purchased in June. (Campbell is now a reporter at the Arkansas Times.)

UPDATED: Panel OKs audit of Arkansas governor’s lectern purchase, some FOIA-exempt records

The Republican Party of Arkansas wrote a check to Sanders’ office for the cost of the lectern on Sept. 14, the same day Sanders signed a new law adding exemptions to the FOIA after a special legislative session.

Later in September, state Sen. Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana, requested that Arkansas Legislative Audit look into the lectern purchase and “all matters… made confidential” by the new Act 7 of 2023.

Hickey later narrowed the second part of the audit request to “significant expenditures involving the governor’s office,” and members of the Legislative Joint Auditing Committee approved the full request Oct. 13.

Lead Auditor Roger Norman told the Legislative Joint Auditing Executive Committee Wednesday that the audit began as soon as it was authorized and that projecting a completion date would be “very speculative.” He had said in October that it could possibly be done by the end of 2023.

“I’d be surprised if we’re able to complete the lectern report by that time,” Norman said. “Right now, it’s just a matter of doing our due diligence and approaching things in a methodical manner, so we’re going to take whatever time it takes to make sure we do a thorough job.”

Act 7 “does not limit the ability of Arkansas Legislative Audit to report information it obtains to the Arkansas General Assembly,” according to the legislation.

Frank Arey, a staff attorney with Arkansas Legislative Audit, told the executive committee that auditors would find a way to compile and present their findings “in a way that protects confidentiality” in accordance with the new state law “and yet is still useful to the General Assembly and to the general public.”

The executive committee accepted Arey’s report from Legislative Audit with no dissent.

On Sept. 29, two days after Hickey requested the audit, Rogers-based attorney Tom Mars said he represents an anonymous client who can “provide clear and convincing evidence” to the Legislative Joint Auditing Committee that Sanders’ office altered and withheld FOIA-accessible records.

Governor: We still have questions about that lectern

According to Arkansas law, violating the state FOIA is a Class C misdemeanor, and tampering with public records that are not court records is a Class D felony.

On Oct. 10, Campbell posted an email on X that indicated Laura Hamilton, Sanders’ executive assistant, was instructed to alter the invoice for the lectern shortly before Campbell received it via FOIA request.

Campbell and Mars both said the email and others from the state Department of Transformation and Shared Services support Mars’ client’s allegations, which have received attention from national media outlets.

Sanders and her communications director, Alexa Henning, have both called the scrutiny of the lectern purchase a “manufactured controversy” and said they welcome the audit.

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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.