Review of $19K lectern purchase likely to extend into 2024, state legislative auditor says

Legislative Auditor Roger Norman (left) and the lectern identified by the Sanders administration as costing $19,029.25 are shown in Little Rock in these 2023 file photos. Norman was attending a meeting of the Arkansas Legislative Audit Committee on Oct. 12, 2023, and the lectern was displayed in the Governors Conference Room at the state Capitol on Sept. 26, 2023. (Left, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Stephen Swofford; right, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Thomas Metthe)

The audit of the governor's office purchase of a $19,000 lectern likely won't be done before the end of the year, state legislative auditor Roger Norman told lawmakers Wednesday.

The Legislative Joint Audit's Executive Committee met for its first meeting since state legislators authorized an investigation into the $19,000 lectern Republican Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders' office purchased in June, which has become the center of public inquiry.

The governor's office used a state credit card to purchase the 39-inch custom Falcon Podium and travel case from Beckett Events, LLC of Arlington, Va. Beckett Events is an events management firm, and its website doesn't reference the sale of equipment to clients.

Multiple attempts by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette to communicate with anyone associated with Beckett Events regarding the purchase have been unsuccessful.

Responding to a question about the timeline for the audit, Norman said despite an earlier estimation that auditors could finish their review before the end of the year, the audit of the purchase will likely take longer.

"Right now it's just a matter of doing our due diligence and approaching things in a methodical manner, so we're going to take whatever time it takes to do a thorough job," said Norman, who did not provide an explanation for why the audit may take longer than originally expected.

The Republican Party of Arkansas reimbursed the state for the purchase using private inaugural funds raised by Sanders, the governor's office has said. Sanders maintains that no taxpayer dollars were used to purchase the lectern.

However, state Sen. Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana, who made the request for the legislative audit, said last month that since the purchase was made with a state credit card, it is worth investigating.

Sanders has expressed confidence that an audit would turn up no wrongdoing.

The invoice for the lectern has a posted handwritten note saying "To be reimbursed." Emails from state employees indicate the state purchased the lectern June 12 using a state credit card. The check from the Republican Party of Arkansas reimbursing the state for the lectern's cost is dated Sept. 14.

Hickey broke down his audit request into three parts:

A review of the lectern's purchase.

Documents related to significant expenditures on "all matters, involving the Governor or the Governor's office, made confidential" by a recent law passed during September's special session.

That auditors develop procedures for how to review future requests regarding confidential information.

The second part of Hickey's request is related to Act 7, a law passed by the Legislature during September's special session that exempts documents related to the governor's security detail from the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act.

The law is also retroactive to June 1, 2022, something Hickey said has raised questions with members of the public. Arkansas State Police Director Mike Hagar has said the retroactive clause was needed because planning for the protection of Sanders and her family began months before she was elected.

While Act 7 made records related to Sanders' protection detail confidential, it also does not prohibit Legislative Audit's ability to report on what it finds to the General Assembly.

Arey said any public report on the findings of those types of records may have to include redactions. But since the review of the record is still early in the process, Arey said, it is unclear how auditors will handle the documents and issues surrounding confidentiality.

"Our recommendation to the committee is that we wait until Legislative Audit gets into this particular," Arey said. "Let us find out what information we're talking about. At that point we can come back to you with some concrete idea of what we're dealing with and we can discuss how do we draft an audit, or how do we present an audit, in a way that protects confidentiality and yet is useful to the General Assembly and to the general public."

The committee unanimously approved Arey's recommendation.