Last week, Alexa Henning, Gov. Sarah Sanders’
most overpaid liar communications director, finally responded to the growing questions about Sanders’ purchase of an $18,475 lectern from Beckett Events, LLC.
I mean, Henning acknowledged that there was a purchase, which we all already knew. But then she claimed that an “accounting error” is what caused the lectern to be purchased with state funds because, according to Henning, it was meant to be paid for by the Arkansas Republican Party with leftover inaugural funds.
Since that time, multiple people have asked Henning to explain just what kind of “accounting error” leads to a $19,000+ purchase on a state credit card that does not get reimbursed for over three months, until an incredibly handsome blogger started poking around and asking questions. Despite the fact that no one has seen the alleged lectern, people are getting louder about questioning the purchase in general, and some explanation of the alleged “accounting error” might actually make the scandal die down, Henning has (predictably) offered absolutely zero additional information about the lectern or the error.
Considering this administration’s general pattern is to deny wrongdoing, then lie about what happened once it’s clear that no one believes the initial denials, it probably won’t shock any of you to learn that the full email trail about the lectern makes one thing absolutely, indisputably clear: there was no “accounting error.”
On May 11, 2023, Laura Hamilton, Gov. Sanders’ executive assistant, emailed Jason Hogland, Controller in the Fiscal Division of the Arkansas Department of Transformation & Shared Services, asking about how “y voucher invoices work”. (The short answer, for anyone wondering, is available here.)
Hogland responded less than 10 minutes later, explaining that y-voucher invoices are for good/services received prior to the end of the fiscal year (June 30), but which were not paid prior to the end of that fiscal year.
Hamilton, realizing that this is exactly the opposite of what the Governor’s Office needs (since they want to pay for the lectern prior to the end of the fiscal year, even though the lectern won’t be received by then), replies less than a minute later with another question, wherein she mentions having “a custom podium on order” that they want want to pay for prior to June 30, and she floats the idea of having the vendor bill the state so they can pay prior to delivery.
Hogland, who understands how state purchasing works, replies a few moments later, explaining that the state can’t pay for the lectern “until it comes in.” He then asks how much the lectern1 will cost and wonders aloud if the lectern “should be [classified as] an asset”?
Less than three minutes later, Hamilton responds that it should be classified as an asset and that it will cost “around 10K.”
Editorial Aside #1: As of May 11, the estimated price was “around 10K”? But, less than a month later, the lectern cost $18,475. Even Joe Biden’s inflation can’t explain that kind of price jump.
Anyway, a minute or so later, Hamilton emails Hogland a second time, noting that “they” (the Governor’s Office) “wanted to use transition money for this purchase” due to the cost. So…yeah. It’s already going to be hard to claim that this was an “accounting error” when, by your own admission, you planned to use one pool of money for it due to the cost and then just…didn’t.
Just under three weeks later, on May 31, Hamilton again emails Hogland to note that they have “pricing on a custom podium [sic] for the governor.” However, the “vendor” that they chose to use requires payment up front…
Editorial Aside #2: Prior to this purchase, Beckett Events had no entries as a vendor on the Arkansas Transparency website, nor does it appear as a vendor that Sanders did any business with on her campaign-finance reports. So when exactly did “the governor and Judd…use this vendor before” such that they would be able to approve of Beckett’s custom lectern manufacturing?
ANYWAY, about a half-hour later, Hogland responded. Notably, in his May 31 response, Hogland did not merely reply to Hamilton. He also blind-copied China Simon, who was Chief Financial Officer of TSS at the time, and Cassie Cantlon, Fiscal Support Manager at TSS. In this email, Hogland again explained that the state could not pre-pay for items.
Hogland’s email did offer a solution, however: the Governor’s Office could get a purchase order for the lectern, and then the funds would be released when the lectern was received. Just like literally everyone else would be expected to do in this situation. Makes sense, right?
A bit later, Hamilton replied, noting that their office would “get the information to get a PO going.”
Narrator: They never actually got a purchase order going.
The following morning, bright and early, Hogland emailed Hamilton again. In this email, he reiterated that, if the lectern was not delivered by July 1, it would have to be paid for out of the fiscal year 2024 budget.
The following day, however, it appears as if the general idea that the Governor couldn’t pre-pay for an item had been discarded. June 2, 2023, is when Hogland emailed Hamilton again, this time asking about “the amount of the podium and who’s [sic] purchase card will be used” to pay for the lectern.
Less than 20 minutes later, Cassie Cantlon (fiscal support manager at TSS) emails Alex Johnston (chief of staff at TSS), China Simon (then-CFO at TSS), Hogland, and Darlene Hicks (procurement staff at TSS) regarding an increase in the spending limit on Hamilton’s state-issued credit card, raising the limit from $20,000 to $25,000.
Less than a week later, on June 8, Beckett Events–which is not in any way a manufacturer, wholesaler, purveyor, or middle-man for lectern purchases, at least according to their own website–issues an invoice for $18,475 for a “Custom Falcon Podium,” including taxes and shipping, plus $554.25 as a 3% credit-card fee.
Editorial Aside #3: So…which is it? On May 11, you said you had the lectern “on order” (even though you didn’t know the right price) and wanted to pay for it with “transition funds,” but the vendor required pre-payment. Yet June 8 is the first time Beckett actually created an invoice seeking payment of any kind or referencing an order being placed. Not sketchy at all….
On June 12, Hamilton finally tried to pay for the lectern with her recently increased credit limit, but she ran into problems using the card. So she emailed Cantlon (fiscal support), Hogland (controller), Simon (CFO), and Johston (CoS) at TSS, asking who could help release the attempted purchase.
Less than ten minutes later, Cantlon emails “OSP Credit Cards,” with Hicks, Simon, Hogland, Johnston, and Hamilton copied, instructing whomever monitors that email account to approve Hamilton’s $19,209.25 expenditure manually.
That payment went through on June 12.
Just over a week later, at 4:30pm on June 20, Hamilton emails Cantlon to ask how the purchase should be coded in the state accounting system. At this point, Judd Deere, deputy chief of staff for Governor Sanders, and Jordan Powell, Governor Sanders’ Director of Public Affairs, get added into the mix, along with Simons (then the CFO of TSS).
Editorial Aside #4: At this point, even if we want to pretend like the Governor was unaware of what her administrative assistant (Hamilton) was doing, we now have two people (Deere, Powell) who are close to the Governor being looped in on this lectern purchase. Any suggestion that the Governor was unaware of the purchase being made with state funds dies on or about June 20.
The following day, with the deadline to allocate credit-card charges coming soon, Hamilton again emails the same people, trying to figure out how this should be entered. I suppose it’s more difficult to do such things when you’ve paid nearly $20k on a state credit card for a product that has yet to be delivered.
Cantlon explains it to Hamilton via email a short time later.
Cantlon then (apparently) talks to someone named Jason at TSS, so she emailed Hamilton a follow-up less than 10 minutes later, telling Hamilton specifically which accounting code to use. And, in the kind of fiscal management that you can only get from people who are truly terrified of upsetting the Governor, we get some delightful kicking of the can down the road as far as how this capital outlay will be handled in the future.
On July 3, seemingly unrelated to the lectern situation (but still relevant to it), Gov. Sanders comes out in support of Joseph Wood, who was then director of TSS, as the next chair of the Republican Party of Arkansas.
Funny thing about buying something on a state credit card, though. Eventually, a bill for that credit-card purchase will come in, and some folks whose jobs involve dealing with state credit cards are going to reach out to make sure the spending was legit (and, possibly, to cover their own butts for any involvement they might have had in certain purchases). Which brings us to Cassie Cantlon’s email to Laura Hamilton on July 24…
asking whether the Governor’s Office had ever received the lectern that they paid $19,029.25 for after being told that they couldn’t pre-pay for it in the first place.
And, in what might be the sketchiest email sent or received in this entire string, Hamilton–who incessantly emails with TSS, ASP, and others about any whim that might cross the Governor’s mind–decides that Cantlon’s July 24 email needs a telephone conversation, not a written response.
“Can you call me on this one?”
August 14 is the last day of emails that we received pursuant to earlier AFOIA requests (though an additional request for other emails remains outstanding). But we can say for certain that, after that date, you have Joseph Wood elected chair of the ARGOP (August 19), Sanders loyalist and noted shady operative Leslie Fisken appointed head of TSS to replace Wood (September 5), and the ARGOP’s cutting a check to “reimburse” the state for the lectern.2
Which brings us to September 21, when Alexa Henning spouted off (repeatedly) about an “accounting error” that “was discovered.”
You have nearly two dozen emails between the governor’s staff and fiscal staff at TSS, discussing multiple different scenarios for ordering, receiving, and paying for the lectern in question. You have the governor’s administrative assistant specifically asking for and receiving an increase in the spending limit on her state credit card, entirely so that she could pre-pay for the lectern. You have the lectern being paid for, with a state credit card, by the governor’s administrative assistant, on June 12, 2023.
You have the rest of June passing without a single person saying anything about the purchase being made with state funds.
You have all of July passing without a single person questioning the use of state funds (other than to ask if the lectern had been received), and not one person saying anything about an accounting error.
You have all of August passing without anyone questioning the purchase, mentioning that the ARGOP was actually supposed to pay for the lectern, suggesting anything about an accounting error, or raising the slightest question about the payment to Beckett Events for a lectern that no one has seen.
And, worst of all, you apparently have all of this time passing without the lectern being received (at least as of the end of July), without it being assigned a state inventory number, and without a single document being produced (despite requests) that would show that a lectern had actually been delivered.
Indeed, it was not until after we brought this issue to light on Twitter that the governor’s office (or anyone else) said anything about the purchase. Even then, the best they could muster, nearly a week after the story broke, was having the least-believable person in the Governor’s entire staff mumble something about “accounting error,” without explanation, before hiding behind “but the ARGOP reimbursed the state.”
This purchase may have been many things–fraudulent, shady, questionable, unwise, poorly documented, exorbitant, stupid–but what it absolutely, positively was NOT was an “accounting error.”
Words have meaning, despite how much Alexa Henning likely wishes they did not, and getting your credit limit increased so that you can buy the governor a toy that she just HAS to have sooner than a purchase order would get it to her is not an “accounting error” by any stretch of the imagination.
Getting a jellyfish like Joseph Wood to cut an ARGOP check to the state after the fact does not change the definition of “accounting error” or make the purchase any less questionable.
Related to the above, as well as the Governor’s general disdain for transparency, we’ve launched a GoFundMe if you would like to help underwrite the cost of multiple AFOIA lawsuits against the state based on the Governor’s attempts to hide records.
I know it says “podium” in these emails. To the extent it even exists, what they have described is a lectern. I will not bend on this.↩
Though, because nothing in this whole thing is clean or above board, it’s worth noting that the amount the ARGOP paid ($19,065.76) isn’t even the right amount for the lectern plus credit-card fees ($19,029.25). But at least it’s over and not under, I guess.↩