On Air Now

Pittsburgh Pirates
Pittsburgh Pirates
1:00pm - 4:00pm

DuBois Weather

Sarah Sanders office potentially violated state law in $19K lectern controversy, audit finds

SHARE NOW

(WASHINGTON) — The little-seen, $19,000 lectern at the center of a controversy in Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ office was made available for viewing on Tuesday night — after a monthslong audit into how the lectern was procured and paid for found that Sanders’ staff potentially violated several state laws.

The governor’s office responded by characterizing the investigation as “a waste of taxpayer resources and time” and called the audit report “deeply flawed.”

“The facts outlined in the report demonstrate what the governor’s office said all along: we followed the law, and the state was fully reimbursed with private funds for the podium, at no cost to the taxpayers,” Sanders’ spokesperson Alexa Henning said in a statement.

A Republican state senator had requested the probe last year after the lectern’s high price tag sparked scrutiny and captured the national spotlight, including a jab from late-night host Jimmy Kimmel.

The purchase only came to light when Matt Campbell, a Little Rock attorney and progressive blogger, called attention to Sanders’ office using a state-issued credit card in June 2023 to make a $19,029.25 payment to Beckett Events, a boutique event planning company whose owners are close with the governor.

Lawmakers questioned Sanders’ staff about the audit’s findings in a nearly three-hour hearing at the state Capitol on Tuesday, after the report was sent Monday to prosecuting attorneys.

“I was really hoping that you all would have brought the lectern with you today so we could see it,” Republican state Rep. Julie Mayberry said at that hearing. “We all can agree that $19,000 was spent on an item and no one has really seen it.”

Sanders’ deputy chief of staff, Judd Deere, told lawmakers that she plans to use the lectern now that the audit is complete, previously having not wanted it to be a distraction.

Despite seven “areas of noncompliance” identified in the audit report where the governor’s office potentially violated state laws regarding purchasing, state property and government records, Deere also said no members of the governor’s staff were disciplined for their actions — “nor should they be,” he added.

What’s next then for the dispute also known as #LecternGate?

Arkansas’ Attorney General Tim Griffin, a Republican, has already indicated he won’t pursue charges — enraging critics — when last week he said that state purchasing laws don’t apply to the governor or other executive branch officials, only to state agencies.

That means the potential for any criminal charges to be filed would likely fall to Will Jones, the 6th Judicial District prosecuting attorney in Little Rock.

Jones said his office is assessing the audit and that their “review is no different than any other file review” sent to them.

Sanders, a former Trump White House official and daughter of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, has been seen as a rising star in the Republican Party.

She was defiant in dismissing the findings, posting a 20-second video edit of the lectern to social media this week that said “COME AND TAKE IT.”

Here are key takeaways from the audit:

Potential violations include tampering with public records

Auditors identified seven “areas of potential noncompliance with state law” that the governor’s office engaged in — including a member of the governor’s office staff shredding the bill of lading for the lectern, which contained details of the shipment and was attached to the delivery crate, potentially violating document retention laws.

They were told in interviews that the shredding was inadvertent.

Auditors also reported that, at the direction of the governor’s deputy chief of staff, an executive assistant added handwritten notes that read “to be reimbursed” on two invoices after Campbell, the blogger, asked for documents surrounding the lectern’s purchase in a Freedom of Information Act request. State Republicans ultimately repaid the cost of the lectern — after Campbell called attention to it.

According to the audit, other potential violations of budgeting and accounting laws include the purchase being applied to operating expenses, though state law prevents equipment that must be capitalized from being expensed, as well as the lectern being paid for before it was delivered.

The governor’s office further failed to notify a state agency of the lectern’s delivery, as required, and did not create a business expense justification statement on the day it was purchased.

Sanders has previously maintained that the lectern’s purchase “went through standard protocol in our office.”

Lectern has no electronic components, despite special features touted

When Sanders came under fire last fall for the lectern’s price tag, relative to other such furniture and equipment, she told reporters it was custom made for her height, was designed “to get the best sound quality” and that it incorporated components to allow multiple media outlets to plug in at the same time.

Auditors reported the lectern features no microphone or any electronic elements.

It does include a light, they said.

The report included a breakdown of the total cost as follows: $11,575 for the lectern itself, $2,500 for a consulting fee, $2,200 for a travel case, $1,225 for freight shipping for the lectern, $975 for freight shipping for the travel case and $554 for a credit card processing fee.

The $2,500 consulting fee had not been previously reported but attracted scrutiny on social media when coupled with a detail from the report that the governor’s office was considering returning the lectern shortly after its delivery because its height did not meet order specifications.

The total $19,000 cost for the podium is notably higher than could be purchased via standard retail means. One retailer previously wrote online that their own lecterns sell for around $7,000. And two political sources outside of Sanders’ office with experience producing podiums and the costs associated with them has told ABC News that $19,029.25 is more than they would have charged or spent on the procurement.

Sanders herself didn’t participate in the audit, nor did the lectern’s vendors

Neither Sanders, who previously said she welcomed the audit, nor the lectern vendors cooperated with the probe, according to the audit report.

Virginia Beckett and Hannah Stone of Beckett Events did not respond to repeated attempts from auditors to contact them via telephone, certified mail and email, the report said, nor did New York-based Miller’s Presentation Furniture, which manufactured the lectern, according to the audit.

Beckett and Stone were previously hired by Sanders’ office to help with advance planning on her gubernatorial inauguration and the 2023 GOP response to the State of the Union address. They were also at the Paris Air Show last June, which Sanders also attended, the same month the lectern was purchased.

Auditors recruited Sanders’ office for help reaching out to the vendors during their investigation. Chief legal counsel for the governor’s office told lawmakers Tuesday she sent two emails to Beckett Events.

Moving forward, an aide to the governor said Tuesday that she doesn’t plan on using the vendors again.

Neither of the vendors immediately responded to ABC News’ request for comment.

No evidence state party planned to reimburse state before FOIA request

Only after Campbell sought additional information about the five-figure purchase with taxpayer dollars was it reimbursed by the state’s Republican Party, with auditors reporting “there was no indication the governor’s office was seeking reimbursement for the cost of the podium and the road case” before the requests.

Sanders’ spokesperson said last fall that use of a state credit card for the purchase was “an accounting error.”

The governor’s deputy chief of staff, however, told lawmakers Tuesday that it was decided later on it would be “preferable” for the lectern to be paid for with private funds via the state Republican Party.

“This body appropriated money that was available for us to use to purchase items. Later on we determined it was preferable that private funds the governor raised be used to reimburse the state,” Deere said. “No taxpayer has been used to purchase this item. So we do not view it as a mistake.”

Notably, the governor’s office had also sought approval before the lectern purchase to increase the state credit card’s spending limit, as opposed to having the Arkansas Republican Party make the purchase themselves.

Campbell, in a statement to ABC News, applauded the auditors’ work which he said proved “what we already knew: that the lectern purchase was illegal and done in the shadiest way imaginable.”

The audit also determined, because of broken protocols, that the lectern belongs to the state of Arkansas.

One Arkansas vendor contacted and quoted a far lower lectern price

Staffers in Sanders’ office told auditors they “could not recall any other quotes being obtained” for the lectern.

However, auditors found that in March 2023, a staff member contacted an Arkansas-based audio and visual equipment dealer and received quotes for podiums up to $1,500, lighting systems up to $1,000 and sound systems up to $3,000.

While auditors said they were ultimately unable to determine the reasonableness of the cost of the podium due to the “custom specifications,” “lack of vendor responses” and “lack of documentation,” they hinted at its high price when compared to similar-style lecterns on the market.

“It should be noted that similar non-customized falcon style podiums can be purchased from online vendors starting at approximately $7,000, as opposed to the $11,575 amount allocated to the custom falcon podium,” the report said.

Arkansas lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have expressed doubt about the lectern’s value.

“I don’t think the lectern’s worth $19,000 or $11,500,” Republican state Sen. John Payton said on Tuesday. “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 judgment and it was carelessness.”

Copyright © 2024, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.