LITTLE ROCK (AP) — From targeting Chinese-owned farmland to banning gender-neutral terms like “pregnant people” from state documents, Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders has rolled out announcements in recent weeks in quick succession, cheered on by her Republican base.
The former White House press secretary — known for scaling back regular press briefings in Washington — has also fielded questions from behind a lectern at the state Capitol. But it’s the lectern she’s not using — a $19,000 purchase that’s led to an audit and claims her office illegally altered public records — that remains a problem for the first-term governor.
That lectern hasn’t been seen at Sanders’ public events, and the governor’s office won’t say where it is. But questions about its cost and how its purchase was handled haven’t gone away so easily.
Sanders has dismissed such questions as a “manufactured controversy” and even chided reporters for chasing what she called “tabloid gossip.” But whether it’s that or a legitimate matter of public accountability, the lectern purchase has drawn the attention of everyone from late-night comic Jimmy Kimmel to The New York Times and could hamper the governor’s efforts to emerge in the vanguard of next-generation Republican leaders nationally.
Sanders appears eager to move on, and has invoked a strategy familiar to followers of the Trump administration: change the subject and blame the media. But she has helped sustain the story in part by refusing to answer basic questions about the purchase.
Where is the lectern now? Who told a governor’s employee to add the words “to be reimbursed” to an invoice after the state Republican Party paid for the lectern, which was originally purchased months earlier with a state-issued credit card? And why isn’t she using it now when she makes new announcements?
She made a stab at that last question when asked directly why she wasn’t using the pricey lectern at a recent news conference.
“Because I figure if I do, then you would talk about nothing else, instead of the important actions that we’re actually taking today,” Sanders said.
An audit approved by an all-Republican legislative panel is underway into the 39-inch-tall, wood-paneled, blue lectern. The Republican Party of Arkansas reimbursed the state for the purchase on Sept. 14, and Sanders’ office has called the use of a state credit card for the lectern an accounting error.
And even as she’s dismissed questions about the purchase, Sanders has also said she welcomed the audit and urged that it be completed quickly.
The optics of an expensive lectern purchased for someone who preaches fiscal responsibility are tough to shake. Political observers liken it to criticism the Pentagon received in past years for pricey hammers and toilet seats.
“It’s a small thing that becomes emblematic of a larger thing that most Americans are suspicious of anyway, regardless of party orientation,” said Janine Parry, political science professor at the University of Arkansas.
A photo the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette ran on the front page after Sanders’ office allowed the paper to view it has been widely circulated. When The Associated Press asked to see the lectern, Sanders’ office sent an official photo of it instead. A state GOP spokeswoman said the lectern was “available for use.”
The lectern’s purchase emerged 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 the broader exemptions faced backlash from media groups and some conservatives.
The purchase was initially flagged by Matt Campbell, a lawyer and blogger who has a long history of freedom-of-information requests that have uncovered questionable spending and other misdeeds by elected officials. Days before Sanders proposed the FOI changes, Campbell filed a lawsuit over the state blocking release of the governor’s travel and security records.
“Anybody who tries to brush this off as ‘who cares about a lectern?’ is missing the entire point of all of it,” Campbell said. “If the GOP had just bought the lectern in the first place, it’s not an issue, but it’s the questions that remain.”
The questions also focus on the decision to purchase the lectern from Beckett Events LLC, a Virginia-based company run by political consultant and lobbyist Virginia Beckett. The company has not responded to requests for comment.
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 and sound components. The cost also included a road case, shipping, handling and a credit card fee.
State Democrats have gleefully pointed out that they bought their party’s lectern for $5 from state surplus.
More broadly, the purchase has spurred questions about how records were handled. Tom Mars, an attorney who served as head of State Police under Sanders’ father, former Gov. Mike Huckabee, has offered lawmakers the testimony of a client he says has firsthand knowledge of the governor’s office interfering with public records requests.
That includes a governor’s office employee in September adding the undated “to be reimbursed” note to the original June invoice. Sanders’ office has said the note was added to reflect that the state had been reimbursed.
Campbell has also filed a new Freedom of Information Act lawsuit seeking additional records about the lectern and challenging the governor’s office claims that Sanders’ husband Bryan’s state emails are exempt from public release.
The week after the audit request was approved, Sanders announced that the state was ordering the subsidiary of a Chinese company to divest itself of 160 acres of farmland. She also signed an executive order banning agencies from using a list of gender-neutral terms.
An outside group appears to be aiding Sanders’ attempts to change the subject, running a TV ad praising the governor. An attorney identified on filings as the treasurer for the group behind the ad did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“The Biden presidency is a disaster, but in Arkansas, Gov. Sanders and Republican legislators are fighting for you,” the narrator in the ad by New Generation PAC says.
Sanders’ most vocal defenders in the Legislature have been mostly silent on the lectern issue. Senate President Bart Hester played down the controversy, saying he doubted the audit would uncover wrongdoing.
“I think the audit is much ado about nothing,” Hester said. “People who trust the governor will say victory and people who want a story will say there’s something more to it.”
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