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Lectern purchase raises issue about Arkansas’ budgetary laws

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(The Center Square) – The Arkansas Legislative Joint Auditing Committee questioned the findings of an audit concerning Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ office purchase of a lectern before approving the report, making the audit’s working papers open to the Freedom of Information Act.

The lectern, referred to as a podium in the Arkansas Legislative Auditing report, was purchased by the governor’s office in June. The lectern’s price was $11,575 with the case priced at $2,200. The shipping cost for the lectern and road case was $1225 and $975, respectively and a 3% credit card process fee of $554 was charged.

Hannah Stone and Virginia Beckett, who facilitated the purchase, also charged a $2,500 consulting fee.

The Republican Party of Arkansas reimbursed the governor’s office for the purchase.

“There was nothing wrong with the purchase,” said Judd Deere, deputy chief of staff for the governor’s office. “We just decided that it was preferable that private funds pay for it.”

Lawmakers grilled Deere and Cortney Kennedy, chief legal counsel for three hours. Also present were representatives of the attorney general’s office, which issued an opinion last week saying the governor’s office was not subject to the state’s budgetary procedures because it is not an agency, but a constitutional office.

The opinion was released last week by the attorney general’s office, just days before the audit’s release. Sanders requested the opinion.

Ryan Owsley, deputy attorney general, said their opinion was independent of the audit.

Roger Norman, the legislative auditor, said some clarification is needed on the states’ accounting and budgetary laws.

“We’ve operated for some 50 years under the assumption that constitutional offices are considered state agencies unless they are specifically exempt under those laws,” Norman said. “And if that is not the case, then we believe that the General Assembly should clarify what accounting and budgetary laws elected officials need to be held to, do they need to be held to the same budgetary and accounting laws as all other employees or is there a different set?”

The report released Monday was referred to the Sixth Judicial District Prosecuting Attorney for investigation. Emily White, ALA legal counsel, told the committee the referral was made for four reasons.

Auditors discovered that when responding to an open records request filed in September 2023 the Department of Transformation and Shared Services did not provide all of the documents related to the lectern purchase. DTTS is the custodian of records for the governor’s office.DTTS was not told when the podium was delivered and no invoice was obtained before its purchase.The bill of lading was allegedly shredded by a governor’s office staff member. ALA did receive another copy at a later date.Auditors also questioned a handwritten note on an invoice that said “to be reimbursed” and said altering the public record after it was entered in the statewide information center is “in potential conflict with language expressed” in Arkansas law.

The audit of the lectern purchase is one of two requested by Sen. Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana. Legislative Auditing is also looking into the governor’s travel and security expenses.

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