Sarah Sanders seeks to limit public records law amid suit related to her travel

Arkansas' governor says the change is for family's security; critics disagree.

September 12, 2023, 3:21 PM

Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders' push to overhaul the state's expansive public records law stumbled at the start of a special legislative session she called this week, with Republican leaders late Monday reworking a bill to enact her changes as Sanders, who says the move is about security and government efficiency, faces criticism over the issue -- even from within her party.

A special three-day session Sanders announced on Friday, called also to address tax cuts and prevent potential COVID-19 mandates, comes as a lawsuit pends against the state for allegedly withholding information related to her travel requested under the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act.

The man who filed the suit believes the timing isn't a coincidence.

Matt Campbell, an attorney in Little Rock and founder of the progressive blog "Blue Hog Report," filed his complaint on Sept. 5 against the Arkansas State Police, which provides security for the governor, after he says the agency failed to provide passenger manifests that he requested for some of Sanders' flights.

A circuit judge in Arkansas is scheduled to hear Campbell's case -- which he contends is "the easiest, most straightforward FOIA win ever" -- on Thursday morning. But Campbell said he's not sure if his case could be affected should lawmakers pass the proposed exemptions to the public records law before then.

"I think they realized this lawsuit was something they were going to lose. So they thought, 'We need to try to change the rules now,'" Campbell told ABC News, saying he's requested flight logs in past administrations but did not face the same opposition.

The effort to now broaden exemptions to what records the public can access related to the governor's administration has brought together some unlikely allies. Democrats have voiced concerns alongside the Pulaski County Republicans and the Saline County Republican Committee as well as the conservative group Americans for Prosperity.

"Why should we settle for less transparency in the reddest state in the nation?" Saline County Republicans asked in a public Facebook post over the weekend. "Why have so many of our Republican legislators blindly lined up behind this bill, which is contrary to our own party platform?" they added Monday.

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

Sanders says the overhaul is meant to modernize the state's public records law and address security concerns for her three school-aged children while increasing efficiency in government.

Her office notes that under the proposed changes, state police would be required to submit a document of expenses incurred by the governor's detail each quarter.

"The amount of misinformation and lies being spread about this bill is typical from left wing activists," Sanders spokeswoman Alexa Henning said in a statement to ABC News. "The governor was the first White House press secretary to need Secret Service protection due to credible threats against her life and some on the left are weaponizing FOIA putting the Governor and her family at risk."

Campbell says the state police denied his FOIA request because of a statute that he feels doesn't apply, but the agency told ABC News in a statement that what he was seeking would "violate ASP's statutory obligation to ensure the safety and security of the Governor and the First Family."

Police argued the same to Campbell, according to emails he cites in his lawsuit.

FOIA advocates sound alarms

The Arkansas Press Association, meanwhile, warns the proposed changes would "eliminate the ability to hold our government accountable by shielding processes that provide essential context for decisions that affect millions of Arkansans."

The Arkansas FOIA Task Force, a bipartisan working group formed by the state Legislature to examine such changes, voted unanimously on Monday morning against proposed exemptions and said the changes should be considered in a regular session, when more time can be given to the bill.

"Nothing is more important than the security of our constitutional officers, including our governor, but I believe that that portion of the bill goes too far, but it's the other portions that are more concerning as far as the future viability of the act itself," John Tull III, an attorney in Little Rock who sits on the task force, told ABC News.

The Arkansas State Capitol in Little Rock, Arkansas, Feb. 7, 2023.
Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images

"There's been an increasing amount of requested exemptions over the last few years, but this takes it to an entirely different level," Tull said. "I do see a greater effort across the country to try and squelch the transparency that the Freedom of Information of Acts attempt to accomplish."

Sanders' support for expanding public records exemptions in an expedited session is prompting comparisons from some critics, like Campbell, to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who signed a bill to shield his travel records from public access earlier this year, just before announcing his bid for president.

Republicans in Florida said that change was about security as well.

Proposed changes include retroactive clause

Arkansas' FOIA was signed into law by 1967 by Republican Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller and is among the most transparent such laws in the nation.

Proposed legislation would broaden what security details from the governor's travel and other constitutional officers' are exempt from the law -- and includes a retroactive clause to June. 1, 2022, before Sanders took office.

It would also block the release of records "reflecting communications" between the governor's office and her Cabinet secretaries, after a previous version more broadly blocked the release of state agencies' "deliberative process" -- an exemption modeled after federal law as defined in United States Fish and Wildlife Service v. Sierra Club, Inc.

Additionally, the legislation would make it harder for citizens in FOIA suits to recover attorney's fees, which critics say will discourage lawyers from taking on such cases and clients from bringing them.

"For a Republican governor to come in and try to gut that access because it's inconvenient is really kind of shocking," Democratic State Rep. Ashley Hudson told ABC News, noting Sanders' position here isn't a traditionally conservative one. "What it'll mean is that it's going to make it a lot harder, if not impossible, for citizens to access certain information from government agencies and elected officials, and it's going to make it a lot more expensive."

Mike Huckabee's former police director weighs in

Tom Mars, who served as Arkansas State Police director under former Gov. Mike Huckabee, told ABC News that when requests for public records like the ones Campbell sought would come to his office, he would inform the governor, Sanders' father, "just as a heads up."

"We fully and properly complied with all those, but I never heard Mike Huckabee or anybody else ever express any concern that the disclosure of information about the use of the [state police] aircraft, who was on the aircraft, how many hours it flew, where it flew, had any potential to create a security risk to the governor or the security team or members of his family -- and I think the reason I didn't hear that from anybody is that any suggestion to the contrary is absurd," Mars said.

Citing his own experience of how the offices correspond, Mars believes the decision to withhold the records that Campbell requested likely came directly from Sanders' office and he condemned the effort to change the law retroactively, arguing it signals an admission of their wrongdoing.

"The Freedom of Information Act has always been a key component of what makes Arkansas great, because people are entitled to know what goes on behind closed doors," Mars said.