Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders's office is under fire for buying a $19,000 lectern
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Political scandals come in all shapes and sizes. For Arkansas Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders, that shape may be a $19,000 lectern. That price tag has raised some serious questions from state lawmakers of both parties. Matthew Moore with KUAF in Fayetteville, Ark., brings us this report.
MATTHEW MOORE, BYLINE: In early September, Republican Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders called a special session of the state legislature.
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SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS: The Senate will be called to order. Senate bill one...
MOORE: Sanders was pushing - hard - to restrict what public records would be available under the state's Freedom of Information Act, including her own travel expenses.
MATT CAMPBELL: This whole thing has started from and keeps growing from the governor's failure to be transparent about just spending in general.
MOORE: That's Matt Campbell. He's an attorney and blogger in Little Rock. He says when Sanders announced this session, he started posting some of the receipts he had FOIA requested earlier in the year.
CAMPBELL: I was just scrolling through those credit card receipts and stumbled across that Beckett Events purchase for 19,000 and change, and I didn't even know what it was.
MOORE: Eventually, he learned through another request that it was for a lectern.
CAMPBELL: And thought, that sounds insane as a price for a podium.
MOORE: To be clear, a podium is an object you stand on, and a lectern is an object you stand behind. And according to the invoice, this lectern was custom - 39 inches tall, tall wood with blue accents, plus a custom traveling case. Cost - just over 19 grand. Beckett Events, the company who sent the invoice is operated by Virginia Beckett, a former colleague of Sanders back when Sanders worked as press secretary for former President Donald Trump. Campbell's post raised a lot of questions, so much so that by late September, the governor's office invited the media to come and see the lectern. But the photos taken by the media didn't look like the lectern listed on the invoice. And it didn't match the price point, either. The lectern that was allegedly ordered typically cost around $7,500. There's also no shipping records, something that reporters have asked for. At first, the governor's office said it was a simple accounting error, but according to Campbell...
CAMPBELL: We've got months of emails back and forth between the governor's office and other state agencies where it's just a discussion about how they're going to use state funds to pay for this.
MOORE: Last week, Sanders said the hoopla is because of left-wing activists.
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HUCKABEE SANDERS: You know, people want to manufacture a controversy where there isn't one.
MOORE: The state Republican Party did write a check to cover the purchase, but that came only after Campbell requested a copy of the invoice. Records also indicate the state agency in charge of purchasing essentially told the governor's office that this wouldn't be reimbursable. Campbell says that despite the many political allies Sanders has in Arkansas, this doesn't seem to be going away.
CAMPBELL: The governor has managed to find, like, the one issue that somehow seems to transcend party politics in this state.
MOORE: A prime example? Tom Mars. He's an attorney who used to run the state police under former Republican Governor Mike Huckabee, father of the current governor.
TOM MARS: In the 37 years I've been a lawyer, I have never in my career ever seen so many red flags, so much evidence suggesting that this is much more of an overpriced lectern.
MOORE: A Republican state senator requested the Legislative Audit Office, which is nonpartisan, investigate the purchase. Mars represents a whistleblower who has offered to speak with that office.
MARS: The person I represent had direct, personal, firsthand knowledge of the cover-up.
MOORE: It's not entirely clear what could be covered up, but it's not just folks like Campbell who want to know. An all-Republican committee just voted to move forward with an audit. It'll be completed by the end of the year. For NPR News, I'm Matthew Moore in Fayetteville, Ark.
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