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Arkansas Legislative Audit report shows multiple laws may have been broken during purchase of $19,000 lectern

The lectern, as displayed in the audit report
Arkansas Legislative Audit
The lectern, as displayed in the audit report

The Arkansas Legislative Audit released a report on Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ purchase of a $19,029 lectern yesterday afternoon. The audit lists 7 different “areas of potential noncompliance with state law” by the Governor’s Office.

The objectives of the audit were to establish events surrounding the procurement, delivery, and reimbursement for the lectern and its accompanying carrying case. They also aimed to determine who owns the lectern, the market value of the goods, and review transactions and events related to the purchase to ensure compliance with applicable state laws.

According to the report, the Governor’s office received an invoice from Beckett Events on June 8th for $19,029.25 for a custom podium and a 3% credit card processing fee. The standard operating procedure is for a purchase order to be created, with payment coming after the delivery of goods. However, staff from the Governor’s Office indicated that the vendor required payment before production could begin due to its custom specifications, and the payment needed to be made before the end of the fiscal year. Therefore, a state credit card was used to purchase the lectern, meaning that public money was used.

On July 31st, Beckett Events indicated that the lectern had been completed and requested shipping details, and it was delivered to the Arkansas State Capitol on August 9th. Based on interviews conducted by the auditors, the Governor’s Office staff discovered shortly after delivery that the lectern did not meet order specifications and they anticipated potentially returning it for modification. The lectern has yet to be returned to the manufacturer for those modifications.

A bill of lading was attached to the delivery — this is a document that lists details about the item being shipped that provides information for the freight company and recipient. The Governor’s office told the auditors that the bill of lading was inadvertently shredded by a member of the staff, but a replacement copy was acquired on October 18. This is the only public record document that auditors determined was destroyed in the report.

In September, Matt Campbell, a blogger and now reporter for the Arkansas Times, began sending Freedom of Information requests to the Governor’s Office regarding her spending and travel expenses. On September 11th, Campbell filed a FOIA request for information regarding the purchase of the lectern. On September 14th, the Republican Party of Arkansas agreed to reimburse the state for the lectern and the accompanying travel case. A check was written that same day and deposited in the State Treasury on September 15th. The audit says, “Prior to a FOIA request related to the [lectern] purchase made on September 11th, there was no indication the Governor’s office was seeking reimbursement for the cost of the lectern or its road case.”

Additionally, the auditors noted examples of noncompliance regarding FOIA laws, specifically the ones that were in place prior to the September Special Session that altered the kinds of requests that could be made of public records. They also noted that three different versions of an invoice were found for the lectern when requesting public records. The first version included a handwritten notation that read “To be reimbursed” and was initialed by a member of the Governor’s staff. A second version also includes the handwritten notation, but clearly different. A third version did not include any notation at all. The auditors describe this as being an example of potentially altering the public record.

The Legislative Auditors write that they were unable to determine the reasonableness of the cost of the lectern due to custom specification. They attempted to reach Beckett Events as well as Miller’s Presentation Furniture numerous times via telephone, certified mail, and email to obtain the specific custom features of the lectern from these two businesses for several months with no response from either. They requested assistance from the Governor’s Office. The Governor’s Office did not contact Miller’s Presentation Furniture in December or January and sent one email communication in November to Beckett Events.

When it comes to who owns the lectern and its case, the auditors assert that it is still state property. State law allows for two methods of disposal of state property, neither of those methods were used in the transfer of the lectern and its case to the Republican Party of Arkansas. The report says, “when the Republican Party of Arkansas reimbursed the state for the lectern and related costs, the lectern did not exist as a state asset.” Interviews with members of related state agencies concluded that an asset would need to be created in the state database and subsequently removed from the Governor’s Office asset listing to account for the reimbursement. On September 25th, the Department for Transformation and Shared Services added the lectern to the asset system with a $0 value. On September 27th, a Governor’s Office employee ran an asset report; the lectern was still included on the Governor’s Office listing.

The audit report goes on to say that the disposal of the goods was never processed. However, staff of the Governor’s Office, Transformation and Shared Services, Finance & Administration, as well as the Republican Party of Arkansas maintain that the lectern and case belong to the Republican Party, and the lectern will be assessed as personal property of the Party for 2024.

Leading up to the release of this audit report, Attorney General Tim Griffin offered an opinion on a question asked by Governor Sanders: Are constitutional offices considered agencies and subject to the General Accounting and Budgetary Procedures law? Griffin determined that the answer is no. The auditors disagree with that opinion and point to numerous examples of previous attorneys general opinions to support their findings.

As noted, the Arkansas Legislative Audit determined there are seven different examples where the Governor may have broken state law. This includes paying for the lectern before it was delivered, misapplying the purchase to operating expenses, incorrect recordkeeping around the delivery of the lectern, incorrectly disposing of state property, shredding a public document, and other public record concerns. They forwarded their report to the Sixth Judicial District Prosecuting Attorney as well as the Attorney General.

Governor Sanders responded to the audit by claiming that no laws were broken and that the report was “deeply flawed.” She also says the audit was “a waste of taxpayer resources and time.” Thirty minutes after the report was released publicly, Governor Sanders posted a video on social media of the lectern, with the video ending with a silhouetted lectern and the words “Come and Take It” written underneath.

Prosecuting Attorney Will Jones wrote on X yesterday that they are reviewing the audit and says their “review is no different than any other file review” sent to their office.

The General Assembly meets with the Legislative Joint Auditing committee Tuesday, April 16.

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Matthew Moore is senior producer for Ozarks at Large.
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