Sarah Huckabee Sanders Has Finally Offered An Explanation For Her Super Bowl Extravaganza 

Arkansas Governor-elect Sarah Sanders before the start of the AutoZone Liberty Bowl between the Kansas Jayhawks and the Arkansas Razorbacks on December 28, 2022. (Photo by Kevin Langley/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
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The office of Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders (R) has issued a statement about her trip to the Super Bowl following a TPM report that highlighted the high costs of her tickets and the ethical questions raised by her big night at the big game. According to a written statement Sanders’ spokesperson, Alexa Henning, provided to the Arkansas Democrat Gazette newspaper, the governor and her family of five “were in the upper level, not a suite” as they cheered on the victorious Kansas City Chiefs.  

“And no taxpayer money was used for tickets to the game for her security detail,” Henning added. 

As a public official, Sanders is subject to regulations that bar her from receiving gifts valued over $100. She had also faced prior controversies related to her use of taxpayer funds. Her family’s big night at the most expensive football game of all time brought up all of these issues — particularly because Henning did not respond to any questions (including multiple inquiries from TPM) about how the governor obtained tickets. 

In fact, much remains unanswered following Henning’s statement — including questions about field passes the family flaunted at the Super Bowl, prior instances where Sanders posted social media photos in which she appeared to be enjoying extraordinary access to Chiefs games, and whether any of this needed to appear on her required financial disclosure documents. The disclosure requirements matter because, even if Sanders did indeed ultimately pay her own way, there are substantial indications she received perks at the Super Bowl and another Chiefs game that were not available on the open market and could be considered a gift for regulatory purposes. 

Sanders’ office did not immediately respond to renewed questions from TPM, following the Wednesday statement, about these details and others. 

Sanders published video and pictures on her Instagram page on Feb. 12, the day after the big game in Las Vegas. The post showed what Ken Solky, one of Sin City’s top ticket brokers, described to TPM as seemingly “not just a suite but a pretty damn good suite.” Arkansas Times Investigative Reporter Matt Campbell also analyzed the clips in a thread on Twitter and pointed out evidence Sanders’ video appeared to be filmed from the suites. 

Henning did not respond to an email asking her to address evidence suggesting that her claim the governor was “in the upper level, not a suite” did not give the full picture. The precise location where Sanders, her husband, and their three children sat raises questions because it would affect the value of her tickets. According to Solky, suite seats had a minimum face value of $37,500 each, which would mean the family’s trip was worth $187,500. Even if they were in cheaper seats, it was still an expensive evening. The cheapest face value tickets were reportedly $2,000 each, which would put the Sanders’ tab at $10,000. 

The governor’s husband, Bryan Sanders, is a Kansas native and the family are ardent Chiefs fans. Sanders may have, as Henning claimed, paid for all of this herself, but tickets were just one part of the family’s Super Bowl experience. 

On Instagram, Sanders posted pictures of her family at pre-game parties and hanging out on the field — including for the halftime show featuring R&B singer Usher. They displayed passes for each of these things including some branded with the Chiefs logo that, according to Solky, were given to the team and other insiders. In her statement, Henning said Sanders would not include any gifts related to the Super Bowl on her financial disclosure for this year, which will be made public in 2025. However, even if she paid for them, if she received passes that were not available on the open market from a private source, that would constitute a gift, experts told TPM. Henning did not respond to follow-up questions from TPM about the Chiefs-branded passes the family displayed in Sanders’ post. 

Theoretically, some of the special Super Bowl passes given via the team could have ended up for sale on the secondary market. If Sanders purchased them there, they would come at a steep markup, but would not be considered a gift, and might not require disclosure. 

However, prior to the Super Bowl, Sanders enjoyed a Chiefs game where she clearly seems to have been given special access by the team. 

As TPM reported, last November, Sanders posted another set of pictures on Instagram showing her family taking in the team at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City. Based on details in the photos, the Sanders clan was in attendance when the Chiefs lost to the Philadelphia Eagles and they were sitting in owner Clark Hunt’s private suite. Sanders even posed for pictures with Hunt’s wife, Tavia. The Hunts and the Chiefs’ communications team did not respond to questions about how Sanders ended up in the owner’s suite. Of course, Henning also did not respond. 

Making it into the owner’s private box would seemingly require being given special tickets. Of course, the owner might not necessarily have to pay an individual price for guests in their own suite. Graham Sloan, the director of the Arkansas Ethics Commission, which is responsible for evaluating complaints about potential violations of the rules on gifts, told TPM that any suite tickets that were free for the giver would be valued as much as the highest price standard seat at that game for regulatory purposes. In spite of this, Sanders’ 2023 statement of financial interest, which was released earlier this month, did not make any mention of the game at Arrowhead. 

Henning did not address the 2023 game where Sanders apparently sat in the owner’s box in her statement. She did not answer follow-up questions from TPM about why it was absent from Sanders’ financial disclosure, which listed several far less expensive gift items.  

Along with making headlines, TPM’s report on Sanders’ Super Bowl extravaganza has raised questions from experts and even inspired memes in Arkansas. The reaction has been fueled by prior scandals over Sanders’ spending including her infamous, approximately $19,000 podium (or lectern for those of you in the grammar police) and a college football party she hosted with about $13,000 in taxpayer funds. Amid the mounting questions over her spending, Sanders backed an effort in 2023 to curb Arkansas’ Freedom of Information Act that makes it much harder for reporters to obtain the records that might help answer all the questions left unanswered by her response to Podiumgate and/or Lecterngate, and, now, the emerging Chiefsgate. 

Super Bowl trips have proven, in recent years, to be a thorny issue for politicians. Similar concerns about the cost of a trip Gov. Mike DeWine (R) and his wife took to the 2022 Super Bowl have prompted fallout in Ohio. After TPM’s report on Sanders, Ohio State Rep. Elliot Forhan (D) reached out to say he is introducing a bill in that state’s legislature on Thursday that would create an exception that would designate as a public record documents related to expenses the governor and anyone in their party incurred while attending entertainment or sporting events. Forhan’s bill, which would help reporters and members of the public to monitor the cost for these trips, is called the “Super Bowl Entourage Expense Act.”  

In Arkansas, it is unclear whether Henning’s questionable explanation will be enough for Sanders’ critics and colleagues. On Wednesday, Sloan, the Ethics Commission director, told TPM he could not comment on whether his office had received any complaints related to the Super Bowl or Sanders’ 2023 trip to watch the Chiefs. 

An audit of Sanders’ podium purchase is expected to be completed by a subcommittee of the state’s Legislative Joint Auditing Committee by the end of March. Rep. Jimmy Gazaway (R), one of the committee’s co-chairs, told TPM there are no plans to audit Sanders’ Chiefs trips. However, if there is pressure from lawmakers, that might change. 

“As with any request, if a member makes a request for an audit, we’ll take it under consideration,” Gazaway said. 

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