ARKANSAS, USA — New public records have made it harder to figure out when Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ office planned to use Republican Party funds to pay back the state for a $19,000 lectern that was bought with a government credit card in June. Records made public this week show that the Arkansas GOP paid for the lectern in September, but the words “to be reimbursed” were not added to the original bill until much later. The reimbursement note that isn’t dated adds to the weeks of scrutiny that have been put on the purchase, which has been the main topic of political talk in Arkansas.
A legislative panel is set to vote this week on a lawmaker’s request for an audit of the purchase of the lectern. The Associated Press got a lot of documents about the lectern on Monday as a result of a Freedom of Information Act request. One of them was an email about the reimbursement note. The audit was asked for by Republican Sen. Jimmy Hickey, who told the AP that the email “further shows the need for a full-blown audit to get all the facts,” but he wouldn’t say anything else.
The state credit card was used to buy the custom blue and wood-paneled lectern in June for $19,029.25, which is a lot more than what other lecterns were selling online. The Republican Party of Arkansas paid back the state for the purchase on September 14. Sanders’s office said that using a state credit card to pay for the lectern was an error in the books. The office of Sanders said it got the lectern in August.
Sanders, a Republican who was governor in January after being sworn in as governor and was press secretary for former President Donald Trump, has said she wants an audit of the lectern but doesn’t want to talk about the purchase.
Sanders’ executive assistant and office manager, Laura Hamilton, added the note after being told that it should be on the original invoice by the agency in charge of state purchases, according to an email made public on Monday. Cassie Cantlon, who works for the Department of Transformation and Shared Services, sent an email to her bosses on September 15 that doesn’t say who told Hamilton what to do.
“When I asked her if she wanted to date the note, she said she was told not to, just to make a note that the invoice was to be paid,” Cantlon, the department’s administrative services manager, wrote in an email. Sanders’s office said on Tuesday that the note was added, but they wouldn’t say who told Hamilton to do it.
A spokesperson for Sanders’ office, Alexa Henning, said that a note was added to the receipt to make it clear that the state was being reimbursed for the podium with private funds the governor raised for her inauguration. The check was also properly dated. She said that the questions about the bill were “nothing more than a manufactured controversy.”
An attorney named Tom Mars confirmed on Tuesday that the note is the public record about the purchase being changed that he talked about in a letter to Hickey. Mars said that he has a client who is willing to help lawmakers by telling them in private that Sanders’ office messed up requests for public records.
Mars said that his client is not Cantlon, who did not answer an email sent to him Tuesday afternoon right away. What Hickey wants will be looked at by the executive committee of the Legislative Joint Auditing Committee on Thursday. The AP asked the state for bills and messages from Beckett Events LLC, the Virginia company that was listed as selling the lectern. When a message was sent to the company asking for more information about the lectern, they did not answer.
Early emails about the purchase that came out on Monday don’t talk about how the Arkansas Republican Party plans to pay the state back. On Sunday’s episode of Capitol View, state Republican Party Chairman Joseph Wood dodged questions about the purchase, but he wouldn’t say if the original plan was for the party to pay the state back.
Sanders’ office hasn’t said what features of the lectern made it seem like it cost so much. A road case, taxes, shipping, and a 3% credit card processing fee were also part of the price.
Last month, lawyer and blogger Matthew Campbell was the first to report on the purchase of the lectern. Campbell has sued the Arkansas State Police, saying they illegally withheld public documents he asked for about Sanders’ travel and safety. A few days after Campbell’s first lawsuit, Sanders suggested that the public should not be able to see many documents.
Sanders signed a bill into law that limits the public’s access to her security and travel records. This was done after her first proposal was criticized by media groups, people who support transparency, and some conservatives.