For AR People

TL:DR; 

  • The governor paid two women tied to Jan. 6th $20,000 of taxpayer money.
  • The governor’s office claimed the $20k expense was for a podium/lectern.
  • The podium/lectern has not been seen; many speculate it doesn’t exist and the $20k paid for the governor’s Jan. 6 acquaintances to join her in Paris.
  • The ARGOP reimbursed the state for the purchase only after the state was FOIA’d for their expenses.
  • The whole thing looks and smells like a good old fashioned coverup.

When something is as ridiculous as PodiumGate, it’s hard to keep track of all the new developments. We’re here with a timeline of what happened, what got covered up and why it matters.

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June 14: Gov. Sarah Sanders leaves for Europe on a trade mission to encourage overseas investors to bring their business to Arkansas and meet with aerospace industry representatives at the Paris Air Show. On its face, this is a fair reason for an overseas trip — aerospace and defense make up about 15-20% of Arkansas’ exports, so it’s important for our economy to keep those relationships healthy. Commerce Secretary Hugh McDonald and Arkansas Economic Development Commission Executive Director Clint O’Neal went with her on the trip. She was scheduled to return the following week. Alexa Henning, representing the governor’s office, said that the costs for the trip wouldn’t be calculated until the group returned.

Late June: After the governor returned, blogger Matt Campbell of Blue Hog Report filed a series of FOIA requests seeking expenditure reports for the governor’s trip. Arkansas State Police (ASP) provided him with only some of the information he requested. The police left out information regarding flight logs, expenses, communication logs, and other information that would normally fall under FOIA. Lawyers for ASP claimed that these records were exempt under a statute that protected information relating to the governor’s safety, but Campbell pointed out that the statute only relates to safety protocols protecting the Governor’s Mansion. Campbell says he gave ASP several opportunities to correct their mistake.

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September 6: Campbell files a lawsuit against ASP for the missing records, claiming that ASP “both actively and constructively denied the plaintiff ’s requests and refused to provide the records despite having no valid basis on which to do so.”

September 8: A short two days after Campbell files his suit, Sanders calls a special session. On the governor’s call: more tax cuts for the rich, restrictions on COVID-19 vaccination and masking mandates, and, oh yes – sweeping new FOIA exemptions for the governor, her cabinet members, and state government officials in general.

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September 11: The special session convenes, nominally for four days. The FOIA bill quickly comes under fire from the entire political spectrum of the state. Senators Blake Johnson and Bart Hester valiantly try to do the governor’s bidding and get the original bill across the finish line, but bipartisan opposition in the committee room means the original bill is essentially DOA.

September 12-13: A new bill is filed that strictly limits exemptions to the governor’s safety. It’s still criticized, but it makes it across the finish line. It’s not clear how Campbell’s FOIA requests endangered Sanders’ security protocols, but that’s the story the administration (mostly) went with.

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September 15: A strange thing appears in the FOIA-ed documents that Campbell received. A line item shows that the governor’s office paid nearly $20,000 to Beckett Events, LLC for what is listed as a “custom falcon podium” with a road case. It hasn’t appeared in any photos since its date of purchase on June 8, 2023, as far as anyone can tell. Strange!

September 18: Attorney Tom Mars notes that Beckett Events is owned by Virginia Beckett, who worked for a Florida congressman and was a GOP lobbyist while Sanders served as former president Donald Trump’s press secretary.

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September 20: The plot thickens like a gumbo thickened with a good roux. Campbell reveals that he already had a receipt for the “podium” but wanted to know how the state would respond to requests for documents surrounding its purchase. Interestingly, though the receipt he had already did not have a reimbursement note on it, the document the state sent him did. Furthermore, documents show that there was a lot of internal discussion surrounding how to pay for this thing, the need to increase the limit on the state credit card to buy it, questions about how to classify it. As of May 11, the office hadn’t yet received the podium. As is, this violates just about every state procurement law. Things are getting a bit shady!

Also on this day, the Republican Party of Arkansas announces they’ll reimburse the state for the purchase of the podium. Henning, the governor’s spokeswoman, claimed that a $500 credit processing fee was the result of “an accounting error.

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September 23: Mars finds some irregularities in the purchasing addresses listed. The company is listed at an address in Washington DC, while the address the podium was ordered from is listed in Arlington, VA. The phone numbers also do not match. Beckett and another woman, Hannah Stone, also apparently did consulting work for the Governor’s inauguration under the banner of Beckett Events.

September 24: Two major developments. First, eagle-eyed Arkansans note that Stone and Beckett checked themselves into a Paris hotel on social media while the governor was in Europe. Second, and perhaps more concerning to those of us interested in respect for the democratic process, Beckett and Stone (under a different name, Salem) were subpoenaed as part of Congress’ investigation into the deadly January 6 rally.

Oh.

As of the time of this writing (September 25), there haven’t been any major developments. But let’s sum up what we’ve got so far.

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After a series of FOIA requests, a strange charge for nearly $20,000 was discovered in  Sanders’ expense reports. The podium has yet to be produced or photographed and employees struggled to categorize the purchase. The company the podium supposedly came from is owned by a woman who’s been a long-time GOP lobbyist and who worked with a woman subpoenaed as part of investigations into Jan. 6. Contact information for the company is inconsistent. The two women also were in Paris at the same time the governor was after having worked for six weeks on the governor’s inauguration.

So what this looks like to us is that the governor paid nearly $20,000 to two women friendly with the governor to get them to Paris on taxpayers’ dime, claimed it was for a podium, a picture of which has not yet been produced, then convinced the ARGOP to reimburse the state to try and cover it up.

We don’t even have the words.