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Legislators question governor's office over lectern purchase

Chris Hickey / KUAR News

Arkansas lawmakers on Tuesday questioned representatives from the office of Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders over a lectern purchase.

The controversial purchase was made last August by the office of Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders. It cost over $19,000 in total, while over $11,000 of that was for the lectern itself. Much from the ultimate price came from fees, taxes and the case in which the lectern was transported. The money was paid for through public funds, but was later reimbursed by the Republican Party of Arkansas after it was revealed in FOIA requests.

The Arkansas Legislative Audit released a report Monday on the lectern purchase. The audit said the governor engaged in “potential non-compliance with state law,” while Sanders said the audit “fully exonerated” her.

“I was really hoping that you all would have brought the lectern with you today so we could see it,” Rep. Julie Mayberry, R-Hensley, said in the Tuesday meeting of the legislative Joint Auditing Committee. “Regardless of what's in this audit report… we all can agree that $19,000 was spent on an item and no one has really seen it.”

Mayberry said many members of the media have been asking to see it. Judd Deere, the governor's deputy chief of staff, said members of the media were allowed to see it before the audit.

“It's physically sitting in the governor's office where it always has been since it was delivered in August,” he said.

Mayberry said if no one is using the lectern, it is a “complete waste of money.” Deere says the governor “fully intends to use the podium” but right now thinks it's too much of a “distraction.”

On X, formerly Twitter, Sanders posted a video mocking the lectern situation, which Deere described as “tongue and cheek.” He said the video proves the lectern will be used in the future.

Sen. John Payton, R-Wilburn, said the governor's office was making too many excuses.

“I don't think the lectern’s worth $19,000 or $11,500,” he said. “But I do think the lesson that can be learned is worth far more than that. If we do, except the fact that it was bad judgment and carelessness.”

Deere said the governor had nothing to apologize for as the purchase was “perfectly legal.”

The lectern was bought from Salem Strategies and Beckett Events. The governor's contacts at those companies were named Hannah Stone, and Virginia Beckett. Stone worked at the White House around the same time as Sanders. Sanders’ staff have said that the lectern needed to be custom made so it was short enough to put her elbows on it. The lectern was also intended to have capabilities for plugging in audio from different media outlets.

The audit says the consulting groups did not follow through on the requests. When it arrived at the Arkansas State Capitol, the podium was not the right size and did not have the requested sound capabilities. Sanders' staff were not able to receive a response from the companies when they asked about the discrepancies.

Deere called Stone and Beckett “talented," adding he had “great respect for them.”

“Isn't it naive to have great respect for their ability when they failed to have the product that was ordered? It's just a standard lectern,” Payton said.

During their investigation, legislative auditors could not get a response from either company. The two consulting groups don't have to respond to legislative audit requests as they are both located outside of Arkansas.

Deere said he asked Stone and Beckett to cooperate with the investigation, but ultimately they didn't want to intervene with it. Deere said the podium was modeled after the same one from the governor's inauguration which Stone also helped plan.

He later said they had no plans to use vendors related to the podium in the future.

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.