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Audit says Arkansas governor's office potentially violated laws with $19,000 lectern purchase

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Arkansas Gov.
FILE - Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders speaks after taking the oath of office, Jan. 10, 2023, in Little Rock, Ark. 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 scrutiny, an audit requested by lawmakers said Monday, April 15, 2024. (AP Photo/Will Newton, File)

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — 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 been the focus of nationwide scrutiny, including over its cost. The lectern for Sanders, who served as press secretary for former President Donald Trump and has been widely viewed as a potential candidate to be his running mate, has drawn attention ranging from late night host Jimmy Kimmel to The New York Times.

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 item has not been seen at Sanders’ public events. Sanders posted a video on the social platform X 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 not 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.

“I am perplexed to see that a significant portion of Legislative Audit's analysis rests on the mistaken conclusion that the governor's office is a ‘state agency’ for the purposes of certain statutes,” Griffin said Monday in a written statement.

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 the 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.

House Minority Leader Tippi McCullough, a Democrat from Little Rock who sits on the audit committee, said she wants more answers from the governor’s office on the findings.

“We need to get to the bottom of it, and we need to make sure that people are held accountable and things are right going forward,” McCullough said.

Republican Senate President Bart Hester said he wasn't concerned about the audit's findings, and said the legislative audit was wrong in applying the purchasing and property laws to the governor's office. Hester said “there could have been a cleaner process” on handling records.

“More importantly, it shows there wasn't some bombshell,” Hester said.

The report had drawn unusually intense attention to the Division of Legislative Audit, which issues more than 1,000 audits of state and local government each year. Hours before the report was released, lawmakers on the audit committee were allowed to view it in a room at the Capitol but could not take notes or copies of it.

The audit was issued days after lawmakers began a legislative session focused on the state's budget.

Republican Sen. Jimmy Hickey, who had sought the audit, declined to comment late Monday afternoon.

The audit is the first of two that Hickey requested that lawmakers approved last year. The audit committee also approved another audit looking at the travel and security records that Sanders retroactively shielded from public release under the changes to the state's open records law.

Andrew Demillo, The Associated Press

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