Arkansas lawmakers question governor’s staff about purchase of $19,000 lectern cited by audit


LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Arkansas lawmakers on Tuesday pointedly questioned Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ staff about the $19,000 purchase of a lectern that an audit says potentially violated laws on purchasing, property and government records.

During a nearly three-hour hearing before the committee that requested the audit, the first-term Republican governor’s top aides faced skepticism from even some GOP lawmakers over the purchase of the lectern that has drawn national attention.

“I don’t think the lectern’s worth $19,000 or $11,500,” Republican Sen. John Payton said. “But I do think the lesson learned could be worth far more than that if we would just accept the fact that it was bad judgement and it was carelessness.”

The audit released Monday said the governor’s office potentially violated Arkansas laws on purchasing, state property and the handling of government records. Sanders’ office has disputed the audit’s findings, calling it deeply flawed.

Judd Deere, Sanders’ deputy chief of staff, characterized the audit as a waste of taxpayer resources and said there was no mistake in the office’s handling of the purchase. Deere appeared alongside Cortney Kennedy, Sanders’ chief legal counsel.

“This is not a mistake,” Deere told the panel. “The podium was a legitimate purchase.”

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 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.

Republican Sen. Mark Johnson defended Sanders, though he said he would have recommended she have the state GOP pay for the lectern from the outset.

“This particular procedure should not be politicized,” he said.

Sanders, a Republican who served as press secretary for former President Donald Trump, has dismissed questions about the lectern as a “manufactured controversy,” and the item has not been seen at her public events.

“We can all agree that $19,000 was spent on an item, and no one has really seen it,” Republican Rep. Julie Mayberry said, calling the lectern “a complete waste of money if no one is using it.”

Sanders intends to start using the lectern now that the audit is completed and hadn’t because she didn’t want it to be a distraction, Deere said.

Deere initially told Mayberry that the lectern had been available for any media outlet to view, even though Sanders’ office has denied requests by multiple media outlets. The only known media picture of the lectern before Tuesday had been a photo the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette ran on its front page last year after Sanders’ office allowed the paper to see it.

When The Associated Press asked to see the lectern last year, the governor’s office sent an official photo of it instead. Asked about those requests, Deere later said it hadn’t been available for outlets to view since the audit began. The AP and other outlets were able to view and take photos of the lectern at the Capitol after Tuesday’s hearing.

Deere said the governor doesn’t plan on again using the three out-of-state vendors involved in the lectern’s purchase. Auditors said the vendors did not respond to repeated requests for answers to questions about the lectern’s purchase.

The legislative audit said Sanders’ office potentially violated state law by paying for the lectern before it was delivered and not following steps laid out in Arkansas law for agencies to dispose of state property. Sanders’ office has argued that the purchasing and property laws the audit cites don’t apply to the governor and other constitutional officers.

Two officials from Attorney General Tim Griffin’s office, which issued a nonbinding legal opinion days before the audit making the same conclusion, also appeared before the panel.

The audit also 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 has disputed the finding and called such notes a common bookkeeping practice.

Democratic Rep. Tippi McCullough, the House minority leader, asked Deere why Sanders posted a video shortly after the audit was released Monday that featured the lectern, a snippet of a Jay-Z song and the words “Come and Take It.”

“It kind of felt like spiking the football before we’d been through the whole process,” McCullough said.

Deere said the video was shot by a member of Sanders’ staff on his own time and that no taxpayer money was used to produce the video.

“It’s a tongue-in-cheek video, that’s all it is,” he said.

Legislative Auditor Roger Norman told the panel auditors are in the early stages of a second audit that was requested last year into travel and security records that were retroactively made secret under changes to the state’s open-records law that Sanders signed last year. Norman did not say when that audit is expected to be completed.

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