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Audit of governor's $19,000 lectern purchase released

Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders speaks after taking the oath of the office on the steps of the Arkansas Capitol Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2023, in Little Rock, Ark.
Will Newton
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AP
Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders speaks after taking the oath of the office on the steps of the Arkansas Capitol Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2023, in Little Rock, Ark.

The Arkansas Legislative Audit released a report on Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ purchase of a lectern Monday afternoon, saying the governor may have broken state law after she spent tax money on a pricey Falcon podium.

In June, the governor spent in-total $19,029 on the purchase. The price of the podium itself was a little over $11,000, combined with an additional $2,500 for consulting fees, $2,200 for a road case, plus additional costs for freight, shipping and taxes. The report says even the governor found this price to be high.

At the time, the governor's office had a purchase card with a balance of more than $440,000 for “transition services.” The purchase was made with that card, meaning it was paid for with public funds.

News of the purchase broke through a FOIA request filed by Matt Campbell, who now reports for the Arkansas Times. At the time of the FOIA request, he wrote a blog called the Blue Hog Report.

After the purchase came to light, the Republican Party of Arkansas reimbursed the governor's office. The purchase prompted questions from the public and members of the Arkansas Legislature. Rep. Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana, asked for the audit in October.

The report says the governor had been in talks to buy the podium with a company called Salem Strategies since January 2023. An employee of the company, Hannah Stone, worked at the White House around the same time as Sanders, who served as former President Donald Trump's press secretary. Stone provided some of the earlier invoices, but a second consulting group, Beckett Events, sent the final invoice for the podium with Stone copied on the email. The podium, a blue "Falcon" design with light brown wood stain, arrived at the Arkansas State Capitol on Aug. 9, 2023.

The report contains purchase receipts for the podiums, as well as mock-ups which look identical to the lectern reporters were allowed to view last year.

 A diagram of the podium from the report.
Legislative Audit Staff
/
Curtesy Photo
A diagram of the podium from the report.

The report says Sanders wanted the podium to be custom-built to fit her standing elbow height, but when they finally received it, the podium wasn't built to their specifications. The governor's staff reached out to the consulting firm about the customizations on the podium but received no response.

The report also tried to find out if the price on the podium was above market value, but was “unable to determine the reasonableness of the cost.” Legislative auditors didn't fully understand what the customizations on the podium were, and the many attempts to get the vendors to explain were unsuccessful. The report did note that similar podiums only go for around $7,000.

Legislative auditors said there was “potential non-compliance with state law," recommending that the governor's office do better to follow state regulations in the future.

Attached to the report is a response from the governor's office, calling the audit “deeply flawed.” Sanders says she didn't break any laws, and that she is allowed to use transition funds to buy things like podiums. The legislative report says, when her office bought the podium, she was required to fill out a business justification and to notify the department of Transformation and Shared Services. She did not do either. Her office did not provide detailed invoices regarding the podium's many customizations, and discarded the case the podium came in without processing it through the proper channels.

Sanders says the rules she is said to have broken don't apply to the governor's office.

Additionally, two of the receipts have the phrase “to be reimbursed” handwritten on them, which may be a legal violation. Sanders' said she did not break any rules because they did not alter the document by writing something on it by hand. Sanders says she has been “fully exonerated," and that the podium purchase was “fully transparent” and “fully appropriate.”

The report has been forwarded to Sixth Judicial District Prosecutor Will Jones and Attorney General Tim Griffin.

On X Monday, Jones said that they are reviewing the audit, adding their “review is no different than any other file review” sent to the prosecutor's office.

In a statement, the Democratic Party of Arkansas called for Jones to investigate and “to swiftly deliver justice to any government official found to have committed an act of corruption in our state government."

Copyright 2024 Little Rock Public Radio. To see more, visit Little Rock Public Radio.

Josie Lenora is a news anchor and reporter for KUAR News at Little Rock Public Radio. She has listened to KUAR and NPR since she was a young child growing up in Little Rock and says she is thrilled to give back to an organization she loves. Josie was previously an intern in the fall of 2021 assisting in production, then spent another semester with the station interning in the newsroom in the spring of 2022.