‘Podiumgate,’ ‘Lecterngate’: No matter what you call it, it’s a questionable mess

 Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders delivers her inaugural address on Jan. 10, 2023, at a lectern that looks much like the one her office paid $19,000 for this summer and for which the Republican Party of Arkansas reimbursed state government. | Karen E. Segrave for Arkansas Advocate

If we lived in a better world, we’d all be willing to believe the governor’s spokesperson when she says the purchase of a $19,000 lectern with a state credit card was an “accounting error”

By SONNY ALBARADO | Arkansas Advocate

Of course, we don’t live in that world. We live in a world where the purchase of a platform for giving speeches, and the excuses for ignoring state purchasing rules, deserve close scrutiny from Arkansas voters.

This rapidly evolving furor began on social media Sept. 15 when Blue Hog Report blogger and attorney Matt Campbell posted on X (formerly Twitter) that Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders “bought an $18,475 custom podium, w/travel case, just before her European trip.” The total cost, according to an invoice from Beckett Events LLC, was $19,029.25, which includes a 3% credit card processing fee of $554.25.

(For the sticklers among you, I’m going to refer to the podium as a lectern, which is the proper term. However, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary website says the nouns are interchangeable in modern usage.) 

The European trip refers to an economic development and trade mission Sanders and other officials began on June 14. The governor’s children and husband accompanied her on that trip, according to records Campbell revealed in other posts on X. The blogger’s public records requests for those documents are widely believed to have triggered Sanders’ successful effort in the recent special legislative session to exempt Arkansas State Police records regarding her security from the state Freedom of Information Act. 

The receipt for the lectern purchase emerged in the documents Campbell received in response to his FOIA requests.

Whether the trade trip to Europe has any connection to the purchase of a lectern from a Washington-based event design and management firm, Beckett Events, remains to be seen. The company’s website doesn’t mention that it also sells equipment, and founder Virginia Beckett’s LinkedIn profile lists lobbying positions in her background. Other social media posters provided photos linking Sanders to Beckett and another Washington-area consultant, Hannah Stone of Salem Strategies. 

What is known is that the Republican Party of Arkansas reimbursed the state $19,029.25 for the cost of the lectern with a check dated Sept. 14, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported Monday. The check came three months after the credit card payment to Beckett Events.

In a statement to the Democrat-Gazette, Sanders spokesperson Alexa Henning said the lectern isn’t “strictly for use by the Governor, it will be used by the RPA for other officials, and it wasn’t paid for with taxpayer money.”

Not now maybe, since the Republican Party stepped in and reimbursed the state, but a state credit card was used to buy it in the first place. Henning dismissed this as “an accounting error; we realized it and corrected it.” It took the governor’s staff three months to spot “an accounting error.”

Henning dismissed criticisms of the purchase by Campbell and other social media posters as coming from “desperate radical left keyboard warriors [who] want to manufacture a controversy where one does not exist.”

Yes, it’s easier to dismiss inconvenient facts that come from an opposing political philosophy than deal with the facts themselves.

Campbell on Monday provided a timeline of the evolution of the lectern purchase from May, when a governor’s aide asked via email for guidance on recording the purchase, through Aug. 14, the date of the last email the blogger said he’d received in response to FOIA requests. 

What becomes clear in Campbell’s post, even disregarding his editorial comments, is that the governor’s office tried to buy a high-priced lectern without going through normal state purchasing procedures and that at some point, key aides and top officials in the Department of Transformation and Shared Services got involved.

Since Monday, posters on X have kept the controversy alive, questioning whether the lectern even exists and connecting dots that may or may not exist.

On Tuesday, the Democrat-Gazette published a short story with a photo purportedly of the lectern in question. Interestingly, it looks a lot like the lectern the governor used when she gave her inaugural address. Which caused a fresh bubble of skeptical criticism on social media.

But it shouldn’t surprise anyone that it appears similar, since the style of lectern, called a Falcon for its sleek silhouette, is fairly common.

You have to wonder where the governor’s communications staff learned how to manage controversy. 

Of course, if we lived in a better world, the governor’s office would have followed state purchasing protocols to buy the lectern in the first place.

Categories: Voices

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