Audit cites potential legal violations in purchase of $19,000 lectern for Arkansas governor

A long-awaited audit on a $19,000 lectern bought for Republican Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee cites multiples potential violations of state law in the item's purchase

Andrew Demillo
Tuesday 16 April 2024 00:08 BST

Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders' office potentially violated state laws on purchasing, state property and government records when it purchased a $19,000 lectern for the Republican governor that's prompted nationwide attention, an audit requested by lawmakers said Monday.

Legislative auditors referred the findings in the long-awaited audit of the lectern to local prosecutors and the attorney general, and lawmakers planned to hold a hearing Tuesday on the report. The report cited several potential legal violations, including paying for the lectern before it was delivered and the handling of records regarding the purchase.

Sanders' office, which has dismissed questions about the lectern, called the audit's findings “deeply flawed" and a “waste of taxpayer resources and time."

“No laws were broken,” her office said in a response filed with the report. “No fraud was committed.”

Arkansas lawmakers last year approved the request to review the purchase of the lectern, which had drawn nationwide scrutiny over its costs and questions about public records surrounding it.

The blue and wood paneled lectern was bought in June with a state credit card for $19,029.25 from an events company in Virginia. The Republican Party of Arkansas reimbursed the state for the purchase on Sept. 14, and Sanders’ office has called the use of the state credit card an accounting error. Sanders’ office said it received the lectern in August.

The items has not been seen at Sanders’ public events. Sanders posted a video on X, formerly Twitter, featuring the lectern and the words “Come and Take It” shortly after the audit’s release late Monday afternoon.

Pulaski County Prosecutor Will Jones' office said it had received the audit and would review it, but said it wouldn't comment further

Auditors said in the report they were unable to determine whether the lectern's cost was reasonable. The report said the three out-of-state vendors involved in its purchase did not respond to numerous requests by auditors for information about the lectern.

Sanders' office and auditors disputed whether the governor and other constitutional officers are subject to the purchasing and property rules she's accused of violating. The audit said the governor's office did follow the steps laid out in state law for agencies to dispose of state property.

“(Arkansas legislative audit) maintains that the podium and road case remain state property,” the audit said.

Sanders' office said in its response that the laws on purchasing and property cited only apply to state agencies, not constitutional officers. A nonbinding legal opinion issued by Republican Attorney General Tim Griffin requested by Sanders and issued last week made the same argument.

The lectern’s purchase emerged last year just as Sanders was urging lawmakers to broadly limit the public’s access to records about her administration. Sanders ultimately signed a measure blocking release of her travel and security records after broader exemptions faced backlash from media groups and some conservatives.

The purchase was initially uncovered by Matt Campbell, a lawyer and blogger who has a long history of open records requests that have uncovered questionable spending and other misdeeds by elected officials.

The audit said Sanders' office potentially illegally tampered with public records when the words “to be reimbursed” were added to the original invoice for the lectern only after the state GOP paid for it in September. Sanders' office disputed that finding, calling handwritten notes on invoices “a common bookkeeping practice.”

The audit also said the office potentially violated law when a shipping document related to the lectern was shredded by a member of Sanders' staff. Sanders' office said the document, the “bill of lading,” was inadvertently misplaced and that a replacement was provided to auditors when that was discovered.

The lectern was purchased from Beckett Events LLC, a Virginia-based company run by political consultant and lobbyist Virginia Beckett. According to a breakdown from Beckett Events that was included in the audit, the total cost included $11,575 for the lectern, $2,500 for a “consulting fee,” and $2,200 for the road case. The cost also included shipping, delivery and a credit card processing fee.

Similar lectern models are listed online for $7,500 or less. Sanders has said the one purchased by the state had additional features that contributed to its cost, including a custom height. The audit said the lectern included a light but not a microphone or any electronic components. Auditors saw and measured the lectern at state GOP headquarters, the report said.

State Democrats have pointed out that they bought their party’s lectern for $5 from state surplus.

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