Sarah Huckabee Sanders defends herself from podium controversy after unusual $19K payment

A spokesperson called the matter, now under audit, a baseless distraction.

October 25, 2023, 2:01 PM

Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders is embroiled in a controversy dubbed by critics and the media as #LecternGate or #PodiumGate -- a silly-sounding name for a potentially serious issue involving an unusual payment with tax dollars and an alteration to the receipt of how that money was spent.

While there have been many twists and turns, at the heart of the incident is an invoice for a $19,029.25 purchase that was made in June by Sanders' office with a state-issued credit card and later reimbursed by the state's Republican Party, purportedly for a custom-made lectern.

Now, however, that purchase and the way in which it was eventually revealed are drawing scrutiny as alleged waste or wrongdoing. The state Legislature recently launched an ongoing audit, which Sanders, a rising Republican star and former Trump White House official, has said she welcomes. No one involved in the purchase has been charged with a crime.

The five-figure podium, or its accompanying traveling case, have never been seen in use and the podium has only been photographed once, in late September.

The approximately $19,000 cost for the podium is notably higher than could be purchased via standard retail means. One retailer 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 told ABC News that $19,029.25 is more than they would have charged or spent on the procurement.

Sanders said last week that her lectern was built with a specific height for stature and designed "to get the best sound quality" after previously teasing its "special features."

She and her aides have dismissed the whole thing as "a manufactured controversy" and said she is happy the purchase and the reimbursement are being audited.

"The governor … encourages legislators to complete it without delay," Sanders' spokesperson Alexa Henning said in a statement to ABC News. "This is nothing more than a manufactured controversy by left wing activists to distract from the bold conservative reforms the legislature has passed and the governor has signed into law and is effectively implementing in Arkansas."

PHOTO: Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Governor of Arkansas, speaks during the Milken Institute Global Conference in Beverly Hills, Calif., May 2, 2023.
Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Governor of Arkansas, speaks during the Milken Institute Global Conference in Beverly Hills, Calif., May 2, 2023.
Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images

How #PodiumGate became public

The matter first came to light because Arkansas attorney Matt Campbell, founder of the progressive blog "Blue Hog Report," requested public records in June related to Sanders' travel and security after she went to the Paris Air Show.

Campbell then launched a legal battle against the state after he said he received incomplete returns. Arkansas insists it complied with the public records law.

Sanders called a special legislative session and ultimately was able to tighten the state's public records law, citing her family's safety despite outcry even from some other Republicans about curbing government transparency.

During that special session, Campbell publicly questioned the podium payment, which he had found detailed in the partial records he received.

Campbell has also publicly released many of the government records he received, which have been reviewed by ABC News. Sanders' office has not disputed their legitimacy.

From there, it spiraled, first with local journalists and then the national media looking more closely at what happened.

The $19,029.25 purchase is linked to a June 8 invoice from Beckett Events LLC, a boutique event management company based in Virginia, for what was described as a Custom Falcon Podium, the accompanying road case and a 3% credit card processing fee.

Virginia Beckett and Hannah Salem Stone, who run Beckett Events LLC, have ties to Sanders: They were previously hired by Sanders' office to help with advance planning on her gubernatorial inauguration and subsequent response to President Joe Biden's State of the Union address. They were also at the Paris Air Show in June. (Beckett Events did not respond to requests for comment.)

The Arkansas Republican Party ultimately reimbursed the state for the $19,029.25 payment via a check dated Sept. 14 -- only after Campbell called attention to it.

According to the public records Campbell released, the lectern invoice was also altered after the fact by Sanders' executive assistant, to add the “To Be Reimbursed” notation.

Henning, Sanders spokesperson, has said the use of a state credit card for the lectern was "an accounting error."

An email surfaced this month by Jay Orsi, a freelance investigative journalist, from an earlier Campbell request, shows a fiscal manager at the Arkansas Department of Transformation and Shared Services describe how Sanders' executive assistant was instructed to add the "To Be Reimbursed" to the original invoice -- but told not to date it. The email does not indicate who told the assistant to change the invoice but not date that change.

Sanders, when asked last week who gave the assistant the instruction to add a note and not date it, said only that "it went through standard protocol in our office."

More emails raise more questions

Notably, the governor's office had also sought approval before the lectern purchase to increase the state credit card's spending limit, according to the emails between state employees obtained by Campbell and reviewed by ABC News.

Henning, Sanders' spokesperson, told The Associated Press: "A note was added to the receipt so that it would accurately reflect that the state was being reimbursed for the podium with private funding the governor raised for her inauguration and the check was properly dated."

She has also maintained that the podium was "not [intended] strictly for use by the Governor."

Sanders' assistant originally wrote in an email to an employee at the Arkansas Department of Transformation and Shared Services on May 11 that "we have a custom podium on order" and that it would cost "around 10K."

The assistant asked how they could make the payment to Beckett Events LLC before June 30.

On May 31, the assistant emailed again to say they had pricing and that the vendor required payment up front: "Both the governor and [another official] have used this vendor before, so they approve the purchase," she wrote.

During the special legislative session, as questions swirled around the lectern, the assistant wrote in an email on Sept. 11 that the governor's office received the lectern via freight carrier on Aug. 9. The state has not made public any receipt of delivery.

Tom Mars, who served as the Arkansas State Police director under former Gov. Mike Huckabee, Sanders' father, claims to represent a former state employee-turned-whistleblower who can prove Sanders' office improperly altered and sought to withhold public records from Campbell, an accusation that Sanders denies.

Mars declined to identify his client to ABC News.

What happens next?

The Arkansas Legislative Joint Audit Committee opened the probe into the lectern's procurement.

Mars told ABC News that his client appeared for an interview last week for that audit -- and that he has personally contacted federal law enforcement authorities, but he declined to specify the agencies he reached out to.

Sanders has said she doesn't intend to be seen with the lectern, because it is a distraction.

"I figure if I do, you would talk about nothing else instead of the important actions we're actually taking today," she said last week. "While we are focused on things that actually impact our state and impact Arkansas, the media wants to spend all of their time focused on things that frankly don't."