Sen. Jimmy Hickey talks with Sen. Jonathan Dismang during the 2021 Arkansas legislative session. Brian Chilson

Arkansas state Sen. Jimmy Hickey (R-Texarkana) is asking for an audit regarding Gov. Sarah Sanders’s controversial purchase of the now infamous $19,000 lectern.

While they’re at it, Hickey wants the bean counters at Legislative Audit to look at the governor’s expenses and other records retroactively pulled from public view thanks to a bill just passed in the recent special legislative session.

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“I think where we are with everything that’s transpired out of this podium, I think for all involved it’s going to be better if we go back and look at all the retroactive stuff,” Hickey said in an interview Thursday. “It seems like, to me, the podium and all that have been tied together.”

Legislative Audit is a nonpartisan body under the legislative branch — that is, it’s separate from the executive branch, which is controlled by the governor. Only a sitting legislator can request an audit from Legislative Audit.

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Hickey sent his audit request to Legislative Joint Audit Committee leaders Rep. Jimmy Gazaway (R-Paragould) and Sen. David Wallace (R-Leachville) and the staff person in charge of the agency, Legislative Audit Director Roger Norman, on Thursday. You can read the letter here.

Hickey asked for “one or more audits” regarding:

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(1) the purchase of a podium or lectern from Beckett Events LLC for the use of the Governor’s Office; and

(2) all matters, involving the Governor or the Governor’s Office, made confidential by Section 4(a) of Act 7 of the First Extraordinary Session of 2023.

The podium in question (which sticklers insist is actually a lectern) was purchased by the governor’s office in June. The Republican Party of Arkansas reimbursed the state for it in September, after Blue Hog blogger Matt Campbell raised a fuss on social media. The podium/lectern continues to grab daily headlines for its outlandish price tag and the cloudy circumstances surrounding its purchase.

On Sept. 14, Sanders signed into law a new exemption to the state Freedom of Information Act, allowing the governor to shield travel expenses, flights on the state police airplane, and other travel and security information that was publicly available under previous administrations. The new exemption includes a clause that makes the change retroactive to June 2022, six months before Sanders took office.

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Proponents of shielding the governor’s travel and security records and expenses cited  concerns that evildoers hoping to target Sanders could mine that information to identify patterns and habits. Critics of the change to the FOIA argued that records about past travel can’t put really anyone in danger, and that Sanders is using security as an excuse to hide what she’s up to on the public dime.

In response to news that Hickey is requesting an audit, Sanders spokeswoman Alexa Henning said on social media, “The governor welcomes the audit and encourages legislators to complete it without delay.”

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Hickey, who has served in the Senate since 2012, has been an influential figure in the legislature. He chairs the Senate Revenue and Tax Committee and previously served as the chamber’s president pro tempore. His current term ends in 2025.

Hickey said some Arkansas lawmakers had questions about the retroactivity piece of the FOIA exemption but supported the bill as a whole because they want to protect the governor’s safety.

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“I just feel that there’s a large amount of legislators who, as far as the retroactivity that we put into the statute, who were concerned about that, but we understood the importance of security,” Hickey said.

Legislative Audit has a reputation for being trustworthy and solid. Having the agency look into the lectern purchase and sealed records — which reporters and members of the public can no longer keep an eye on themselves — makes sense, he said.

“Legislative Audit is nonpartisan and independent and as good of people as you’ve ever met. They just work,” Hickey said.

The new FOIA exemption covers security-related information, but that’s a bigger category than one might think. It could also include travel information — such as who caught a ride on the state-owned plane — hotel and meal receipts, and the prices of commercial plane tickets.

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It was the intent of legislators that Legislative Audit would be able to look at exempted records and expenses, but that piece of the process wasn’t codified in the law, Hickey said. The new law calls for Arkansas State Police to provide a quarterly tally of these expenses to legislators. But Hickey said he wants Legislative Audit to solidify a process to monitor those now-private records.

“Our intention was that Legislative Audit can go in and look, and if they didn’t have a finding, they would just report no findings,” Hickey said.

If everything is on the up and up, Legislative Audit would have nothing to report. If they do find something questionable, they would let legislators know.

“I want everybody to know how to do it,” he said. “The most prudent thing for us to do is just to go ahead and get this all developed and get it out there so everybody knows the process is in place.”

Hickey plans to present his request to fellow lawmakers at a Legislative Joint Auditing subcommittee Oct. 12. Their approval would clear the people at Legislative Audit to begin.