Arkansas AG claims purchasing laws do not apply to governor, days before release of lectern audit

Arkansas Attorney General Tim Griffin
Arkansas Attorney General Tim Griffin
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Arkansas Attorney General Tim Griffin, left, gestures during a news conference at the Arkansas Capitol. (John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate)

Arkansas Attorney General Tim Griffin released an opinion Wednesday, at Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ request, declaring that certain executive branch officials such as the governor are not subject to certain laws that regulate purchases by government entities.

Sanders’ request and Griffin’s response came just days before lawmakers are expected to release the results of Arkansas Legislative Audit’s investigation into the controversial purchase of a $19,000 lectern last year by Sanders’ office.

Lawmakers authorized the audit in October into both the lectern purchase and “all matters… made confidential” by Act 7 of 2023, which exempted records related to the governor’s security from the state Freedom of Information Act.

Arkansas Legislative Audit’s lead auditor, Roger Norman, told lawmakers in February that the probe by the nonpartisan agency that investigates government spending was set to conclude in March.

The decision of when to make the final report public is up to Legislative Joint Auditing Committee co-chairs Sen. David Wallace of Leachville and Rep. Jimmy Gazaway of Paragould, both Republicans. Gazaway told the Associated Press this week that the report should be released by the end of next week.

Sanders’ office bought the lectern and a carrying case with a state-issued credit card in June 2023 from Beckett Events LLC, a Virginia-based event design and management firm with political ties to Sanders. The purchase totaled $19,029, complete with the credit card processing fee. Similar lecterns are available online for significantly lower prices.

The Republican Party of Arkansas reimbursed Sanders’ office for the full amount in September, about the same time that attorney and blogger Matt Campbell was using the FOIA to report on the governor’s office’s expenses.

Campbell, who is now a reporter for the Arkansas Times, posted the invoice for the lectern on X (formerly Twitter) on Sept. 15. Sanders signed Act 7 the previous day after a special legislative session in which she had supported additional exemptions to the FOIA.

The lectern purchase and the FOIA exemption brought scrutiny on Sanders’ office. She repeatedly called the purchase a “manufactured controversy,” and she said her office “followed the regular course of law,” the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported.

If the purchase was indeed legal, asking the attorney general for an opinion on whether state procurement laws apply to Sanders’ office “seems silly to me,” said Tom Mars, a Rogers-based attorney and former Arkansas State Police director who has criticized Sanders over what he and others call “Lecterngate.”

“You can’t have it both ways,” Mars said. “When you’re caught red-handed, sometimes it’s just better to say ‘I’m sorry’ and do what you can to fix it.”

State purchasing laws

Griffin’s opinion states that elected constitutional offices are not state “agencies” under the General Accounting and Budgetary Procedures Law, which regulates the financial behavior of the state’s “agencies, boards, commissions, departments, and institutions.” The list included in the law does not specifically contain “offices” or “officers” and therefore does not apply to them “unless otherwise necessary,” a phrase taken directly from the law, Griffin wrote.

Portions of the General Accounting and Budgetary Procedures Law apply to the governor’s office, but only “if the relevant provisions provide that they apply either: (1) to one or more specific constitutional offices or (2) generally to ‘offices’ or ‘officers,’” Griffin wrote.

According to the law, the state and its listed subsidiaries must “provide adequate accounting for all fiscal transactions.”

Constitutional offices are also “not subject to the marketing-and-redistribution process” outlined in another statute because it too does not mention “offices” or “officers,” according to Griffin’s opinion. The M&R statute regulates “effective utilization of surplus state property.”

Griffin opined that the General Accounting and Budgetary Procedures Law “does not require constitutional offices to use M&R either.”

“In fact, it doesn’t require any state agency to use M&R,” Griffin wrote. “Instead, it is directed only at the Secretary of the Department of Finance and Administration, as the State’s Chief Fiscal Officer.”

If the audit report reveals that Sanders’ office broke state procurement law, that might “be the least of the governor’s concerns,” Mars said.

In September, Mars said he represents an anonymous client who can “provide clear and convincing evidence” to the Legislative Joint Auditing Committee that Sanders’ office had recently altered and withheld FOIA-accessible records.

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.

“My general reaction to [Griffin’s opinion] is so what?” Mars said. “I didn’t ever think there was a huge debate over whether most of the purchasing laws apply to constitutional offices or not. It looks to me like more of a PR strategy than anything else.”

Griffin declined to comment further on the opinion, saying through a spokesperson that it “speaks for itself.”

Sanders’ office did not respond to a request for comment Friday.

The post Arkansas AG claims purchasing laws do not apply to governor, days before release of lectern audit appeared first on Arkansas Advocate.