Arkansas lawmakers question governor’s lectern purchase, potential law violations found in audit

Cortney Kennedy, Judd Deere
Cortney Kennedy, Judd Deere
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Judd Deere and Cortney Kennedy, the governor's deputy chief of staff and chief legal counsel, listen to questions from Arkansas lawmakers about an audit report on the purchase of a $19,000 lectern for the governor's office on April 16, 2024. (Antoinette Grajeda/Arkansas Advocate)

Arkansas lawmakers questioned representatives of Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Attorney General Tim Griffin on Tuesday in light of Monday’s audit report that highlighted several potential breaches of state law in the $19,000 purchase of a lectern for Sanders’ office last year.

The Legislative Joint Auditing Committee heard the report and voted with no dissent to mark it as presented, per standard operating procedure for reports from Arkansas Legislative Audit. Several lawmakers who were not on the committee also attended the meeting to ask questions of the governor’s and attorney general’s staff.

The committee authorized the audit in October after it became public knowledge that members of Sanders’ staff used a state-issued credit card to buy the lectern and a carrying case in June from a Virginia-based event design and management firm with political ties to Sanders. The Republican Party of Arkansas reimbursed the governor’s office three months later, just before attorney and blogger Matt Campbell received the invoice for the lectern via the state Freedom of Information Act and posted it on X (formerly Twitter).

Last year, Sanders repeatedly called criticism of the purchase a “manufactured controversy” and said she welcomed the audit. The audit report states that she “declined the opportunity to speak with ALA staff or provide a statement.”

Sanders “did not feel there was a need to give any further statements” since she had already “given multiple public statements about the podium and the purchase,” Cortney Kennedy, Sanders’ chief legal counsel, said Tuesday in response to a question from Sen. Kim Hammer, R-Benton.

Judd Deere, Sanders’ deputy chief of staff, repeated Monday’s statement from her spokeswoman Alexa Henning, saying the lectern purchase was lawful “and the state was fully reimbursed with private funds for the podium, at no cost to the taxpayers.”

During the three-hour meeting, some lawmakers continued to scrutinize the lectern purchase and said they believed auditors had done their job properly.

“You cannot correct a mistake until you admit you made one, and what troubles me most about this whole situation is I don’t really hear the governor’s office or governor’s staff saying, ‘We should have done it a different way,’” said Sen. John Payton, R-Wilburn. “Instead they’re trying to justify how they did it.”

Sen. Mark Johnson, R-Ferndale

Other lawmakers expressed agreement with Sanders and her staff that the audit was a waste of taxpayer resources, which her office said in its formal response to the audit report.

Sen. Mark Johnson, R-Ferndale, said he thought the attention the lectern purchase has received was unwarranted and that Sanders “handled it just perfectly” when she sought reimbursement for the purchase.

“We’ve seen it all across the country — proper, legal legislative procedures being politicized and weaponized,” Johnson said.

The audit report noted “there was no indication” that Sanders’ office was seeking reimbursement for the lectern before receiving a FOIA request from Campbell, three days before the Republican Party of Arkansas sent her office a check for the full $19,029 amount.

In addition to the lectern audit, lawmakers also approved a probe into “significant expenditures involving the governor’s office” that were shielded from public accessibility by Act 7 of 2023. The law exempted records related to the governor’s security from the FOIA, and Sanders signed it the day before Campbell brought the lectern purchase to light.

Lead auditor Roger Norman said Tuesday that this audit of expenditures is still in the beginning stages and that the committee’s acknowledgement of the lectern audit would not influence or interfere with it.

Report findings

The audit report has been sent to both ​​Griffin and Sixth Judicial District Prosecuting Attorney Will Jones.

It said several actions by Sanders’ office potentially ran afoul of state law including:

  • Paying for the lectern before it was delivered.

  • Failing to notify the state Department of Transformation and Shared Services of the delivery, which prevented the purchase from being properly recorded as belonging to state government.

  • Characterizing the purchase as an operating expense instead of a capital asset, a category for property that costs more than $5,000.

  • Seeking reimbursement for the lectern from the Republican Party of Arkansas instead of asking the State Procurement Director for an exemption from state purchasing and property disposal laws.

  • Shredding a document that included details about the lectern necessary to properly record the purchase. Sanders’ office’s staff told auditors this was done in error.

  • Failing to create a business justification statement for the purchase.

The report recommended that the governor’s office ensure purchases are paid for after delivery, “retain all original documentation” related to purchases and deliveries, follow state law when disposing of property and ensure documentation is completed in a timely manner.

The report also noted that the governor’s office had three copies of the invoice for the lectern, two of which had handwritten notes on them, indicating that staff altered public records.

One of the three versions of the invoice “appears to be a copy of the original” and does not include a handwritten addition of “to be reimbursed” along with the initials LH for Laura Hamilton, Sanders’ executive assistant. The two others include the addition — one was attached to the check from the state GOP that was deposited into the state Treasury — and were both sent to Campbell in response to his FOIA requests, the report states.

Upon questioning from Rep. Carol Dalby, R-Texarkana, Deere said he directed Hamilton to add the note to the two copies.

The audit report states that the note “altered the public record” and “potentially conflicts with [state law].”

Sanders’ office’s formal response to auditors claimed “a handwritten note on an invoice, absent a false alteration, is not a violation of law,” and Deere repeated this statement Tuesday.

Dalby asked which version of the invoice was correct. Kennedy said all three were correct. Dalby said she disagreed with Kennedy’s statement.

“It’s a common government practice to write on receipts and invoices to document certain business procedures,” Kennedy said.

The invoice and other documents showed that the lectern’s base cost was $11,575, the carrying case cost $2,200 and shipping and handling of both items also cost $2,200, according to the report.

The governor’s office also paid a $2,500 “consulting fee” to Beckett Events, a business in the Washington D.C. area run by Virginia Beckett, a consultant and lobbyist who worked on Sanders’ 2022 gubernatorial campaign. The 3% credit card processing fee of $554 brought the $18,475 lectern purchase to $19,029.

New York-based Miller’s Presentation Furniture manufactured the lectern, and D.C.-area Salem Strategies and its owner, Hannah Stone, gave Sanders’ office information about portable lecterns upon request, the report states. Stone is also a Sanders acquaintance.

Multiple lawmakers questioned the $2,500 consulting fee; Kennedy and Deere said they could not explain it because Stone and Beckett were responsible for it.

Legislative Audit “could not determine the reasonableness” of both the podium’s base cost and the consulting fee because Beckett Events, Salem Strategies and Miller’s Presentation Furniture all did not respond to auditors’ attempts to contact them.

Different interpretations of state law

Lawmakers spent much of the meeting discussing 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 last week in an opinion Sanders requested.

Ryan Owsley and Noah Watson, two of Griffin’s deputies who have written opinions for his office, reiterated the opinion before the committee.

But Legislative Audit considers the governor’s office an agency under the GABPL, which requires the state and its subsidiaries to “provide adequate accounting for all fiscal transactions.”

Sanders’ office’s formal response to auditors was dated March 29 and contained many of the same legal arguments as Griffin’s opinion, published April 10. Kennedy said she and her team of attorneys sought advice from Griffin’s office while preparing the response.

Sen. Missy Irvin, R-Mountain View, asked if this influenced the legal opinion; Owsley said it did not.

Hammer asked if Sanders’ office requested the opinion with the purpose of pre-empting the audit report. Owsley said the governor’s office sought an expedited response but did not give a reason why.

Hammer also asked if the involvement of Griffin’s office would make it ineligible to represent Sanders’ office in court if any charges were brought regarding the lectern purchase.

“It depends on how that case progresses,” Owsley said. “…If we had a conflict, we would not continue in any kind of representation in that case, [but] it’s hard to see how that conflict would arise.”

State law pertaining to timely business justification statements does specifically apply to the governor’s office. Kennedy said the office has changed its policies to ensure compliance with the statute in the future.

Dalby asked if this was an acknowledgement that the governor’s office follows procurement and purchasing procedures, and Kennedy tried to repeat her and Deere’s past statements about the applicability of purchasing laws.

“You don’t have to explain it to me,” said Dalby, who is an attorney. “Believe it or not, I can read the law.”

I don’t really hear the governor’s office or governor’s staff saying, ‘We should have done it a different way.' Instead they’re trying to justify how they did it.

– Sen. John Payton, R-Wilburn

‘This is not a mistake’

Rep. Julie Mayberry, R-Hensley, pointed out that “no one has really seen” the lectern since it was delivered to Sanders’ office in August. She asked Deere where the lectern is and when it will be used publicly.

“Otherwise, it was a complete waste of money because no one’s using it,” she said.

Deere said the lectern has not been moved from Sanders’ office since its delivery because “she wasn’t going to allow her use of a podium while the audit was being conducted to distract from other work she was doing.”

Sanders’ office allowed the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette to view and photograph the lectern in September. Deere mentioned this, but Mayberry said she had heard that Sanders’ office rejected other media outlets’ request to see the lectern.

Deere said the lectern became unavailable to news media after the audit began but will be used now that it’s over.

House Minority Leader Tippi McCullough, D-Little Rock, asked Deere and Kennedy why the lectern has not been at the Republican Party of Arkansas’ headquarters, since the party ultimately paid for the lectern. Deere said Sanders and her staff did not want to move the lectern during the audit.

Rep. Robin Lundstrum, R-Elm Springs
Rep. Robin Lundstrum, R-Elm Springs

Rep. Robin Lundstrum, R-Elm Springs

Rep. Robin Lundstrum, R-Elm Springs, asked why the party made the payment “when it’s perfectly within the governor’s purview to have a podium” and pay for it with state funds.

Deere repeated that the purchase was “perfectly legal” and something Sanders’ office needed. He also said multiple times that the Republican Party of Arkansas has owned the lectern since making the reimbursement.

The audit report asserts that since the lectern and carrying case “were initially paid for with funds appropriated by the General Assembly to the Governor’s Office,” both items still are state property.

Lundstrum said she believed there would have been no controversy if there had been a bidding process for the design, construction and sale of the lectern.

Sanders’ office has changed its internal policies so that future purchases can be made with bids “to ensure a situation like this does not happen again,” Kennedy said.

Lundstrum asked Deere and Kennedy if the governor and her staff had made “a simple honest mistake and knee-jerk reaction in an effort to try to make everything right that just went a little too far.”

“This is not a mistake,” Deere replied. “The podium was a legitimate purchase, one that the office had identified that we needed… Later on, we determined that it was preferable that private funds that the governor raised through the state Republican Party be used to reimburse the state.”

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