A $19,000 lectern which generated days of speculation was publicly displayed Tuesday by the governor's office, three months after its June purchase.
The lectern, a 39-inch custom Falcon Podium has prompted questions on social media about its price and purpose. Some on social media have speculated whether it even existed.
On Tuesday, the governor's office granted permission to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette to view and photograph the lectern, which was placed in a corner of the governor's conference room at the state Capitol.
In recent days, the lectern's purchase became a point of contention after attorney and blogger Matthew Campbell obtained an invoice for it through a records request.
Campbell posted a photo on X, formerly known as Twitter, of an $18,475 invoice from Beckett Events LLC, an events management firm based in Arlington, Va., along with a 3% credit processing fee of $554.25, to the governor's office dated June 8 and carrying the notation: "To be reimbursed."
Alexa Henning, a spokeswoman for Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, responded to questions from the Democrat-Gazette on Tuesday. Henning said the podium was delivered to the state on Aug. 9 and has yet to be used by the governor. Henning said it "was purchased with the governor's inaugural fund at [the Republican Party of Arkansas].
"These desperate radical left keyboard warriors spread outright lies and try to manufacture a controversy where one does not exist," Henning said in a statement she gave to the Democrat-Gazette on Tuesday.
State records show the Republican Party of Arkansas reimbursed the state with a $19,029.25 check dated Sept. 14. Last week, Henning told the Democrat-Gazette the lectern would also be used by the Republican Party of Arkansas for other officials and that taxpayer money did not pay for it. The credit card fee that accompanied the purchase of the lectern was an "accounting error," she said.
"The podium is owned by the Republican Party of Arkansas," said Seth Mays, executive director of the Republican Party of Arkansas.
The party reimbursed the state through a special project account, which Mays described as a fund used by the party to pay and reimburse the state for political expenses, such as to fly a member of Sanders' staff to a Republican Governors Association event. Mays said those type of expenses are not paid for by the party's typical donors but from a special account set up for the governor's inauguration.
"It is also a fund routinely used for reimbursement for the previous governor, for this governor and I suspect future governors for these type of expenses," Mays said.
Disclosures about the lectern's purchase have led to numerous accusations against the governor. Some have questioned why the state decided to purchase the podium from Beckett Events, which describes itself on its website as a "full-service events management company," and does not list lecterns or other equipment for sale on the site.
Asked why the state purchased the lectern from Beckett Events, Henning responded, "The podium is a similar model to the one that was used during her inauguration."
Henning did not address questions about what features the lectern has to justify its roughly $19,000 cost.
On Tuesday, For AR People, a group that advocates for transparency in state government, said it filed a formal audit request with Arkansas Legislative Audit and a complaint with the Arkansas attorney general's office.
Gennie Diaz, executive director of For AR People said in a letter to Roger Norman, Legislative Auditor, "It appears the Governor's Office may have misused taxpayer funds in purchasing the podium. ... It also appears representatives of the Governor's Office subsequently lied to the public about the purpose and accounting practices related to said expenditure."
State Sen. David Wallace, R-Leachville, and state Rep. Jimmy Gazaway, R-Paragould, who co-chair the Legislative Joint Auditing Committee, told the Democrat-Gazette on Tuesday that concerns about the lectern's purchase have not been brought to their attention.
Rogers attorney Tom Mars, who served as the director of the Arkansas State Police under Sanders' father, former Gov. Mike Huckabee, said he plans on writing letters to the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Arkansas, the Little Rock office of the FBI, the Public Integrity Section of the U.S. Department of Justice and the prosecuting attorney for Pulaski County about the matter.
Mars also worked as a personal attorney for Huckabee, who served as governor of Arkansas from 1996 to 2007.
"I'm not accusing anybody of doing anything, but I am very comfortable pointing out that there is so much smoke here that the situation just cries out for an independent inquiry by a federal law enforcement agency," Mars said.
Mars also accused the Republican governor of not following state procurement laws. Mars said his opinion has been shaped by the financial records dealing with the purchase that Campbell posted on X and on Campbell's blog, the Blue Hog Report.
"All I know is that there are countless irregularities in the purchase of this lectern that probably set a new state record, since statehood," Mars said.
In response, Henning said Mars' claims were defamatory and that the state's procurement law does not apply to constitutional officers like Sanders.
"State procurement law explicitly applies to state agencies and not constitutional officers," Henning said. "The state was reimbursed for the podium by the governor's private inaugural funds. This is nothing more than slanderous allegations from an angry leftist."
Information for this article was contributed by Michael R. Wickline and Josh Snyder of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.