Audit of $19,000 lectern purchase by governor's office expected by end of March, lawmakers told

The audit of the purchase of a $19,000 lectern by the governor's office will be finished by the end of March, Legislative Auditor Roger Norman told lawmakers Thursday.

It's the latest update in the almost five-month-long investigation of the purchase of the lectern, which has drawn national headlines and prompted an investigation by legislative auditors.

Speaking to the executive committee of the Legislative Joint Auditing Committee, Norman said auditors have interviewed 20 individuals and will likely continue their field work on the investigation "at least through next week."

"We have sought to gather all relevant communications and financial records surrounding the purchase and the reimbursement of the podium," Norman said. "Currently, the audit special report is in the draft stages. Barring no delays in the finalization process, we anticipate a final report by the end of March."

In June the governor's office purchased the 39-inch custom Falcon Podium and travel case from Beckett Events LLC of Arlington, Va., using a state credit card. Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders contends the purchase didn't come at the expense of taxpayers because the Republican Party of Arkansas reimbursed the state.

Sanders has said previously that she welcomed the audit and that she is confident no wrongdoing would be found. Alexa Henning, a spokesperson for Sanders, did not respond to questions as to whether the governor has spoken with legislative auditors for the report.

When the report is complete, the decision on how and when to release it will fall to the co-chairs of the executive committee -- Sen. David Wallace, R-Leachville, and Rep. Jimmy Gazaway, R-Paragould -- who can choose to release the final report early, call a special meeting to have auditors present it, or wait until the committee's meeting in June.

When asked, Gazaway said he was hesitant to say how the committee will publicize the report, adding that he and Wallace will need to review it before making a final decision.

"If we see the report and we don't think it's thorough enough or we have some issue with the report, then we may not want to early-release it. We might want to go back to Audit and say, 'Hey, we think you ought to do X, Y and Z,'" Gazaway said. "We may think that, you know, based on the report that it needs to be released immediately. I mean, it's just hard to say. I don't know at this point."

The audit of the lectern purchase has taken longer than Norman originally anticipated. Norman told the committee Thursday the report has been delayed by holidays and inclement weather in January.

"I would just simply say, the sooner the better," said House Majority Leader Marcus Richmond, R-Harvey. "I wouldn't wait until June."

Senate Minority Leader Greg Leding, D-Fayetteville, said he hopes lawmakers get to view the audit report before the fiscal session in April.

"At this time, you know, no lawmaker knows anything more than what's been reported, so we don't know what issues auditors might have run into," Leding said. "But assuming that they got access to what they needed, I have full faith in the final product."

The purchase, revealed through a records request by attorney and blogger Matt Campbell, prompted state Sen. Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana, to request the audit. Hickey said he was concerned that a state credit card was used to make the purchase.

Campbell obtained records for the lectern's purchase through a Freedom of Information Act request and posted the documents onto X, formerly known as Twitter.

Emails show the state purchased the lectern June 12 using a state credit card. The Republican Party of Arkansas later reimbursed the state for the purchase, according to a check dated Sept. 14.

The invoice for the lectern has a handwritten note saying "To be reimbursed," which has prompted further questions. After Hickey made his request for an audit in September, Rogers-based attorney Tom Mars wrote to the Texarkana senator saying he represented a client "with firsthand knowledge" that Sanders' office interfered with Campbell's records request.

Mars accused the governor's office of altering an invoice from Beckett Events. Mars did not respond Thursday to a request to comment.