Remember Sarah Sanders? President Trump’s press secretary and the daughter of former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee? Well, these days she’s following in the family business and being governor of Arkansas herself. But she’s gotten herself into a really weird political scandal that still mostly hasn’t broken into the national news. So we’re making it the topic of today’s Backchannel.
You won’t want to miss this.
Let’s Talk about ‘PodiumGate’
Originally Published: October 5, 2023 12:07 p.m.
You probably haven’t heard of “Podiumgate.” I’ve been kicking myself for the last week or so because there’s been so much going on and this story is so convoluted that I haven’t made time to write about it. But it’s the kind of story I’ve always loved. And it’s a big story, even if, for the moment, it’s almost entirely contained within Arkansas. So in this post I’m going to try to give you the outline, to catch you up so we can keep tabs on it going forward. It’s so convoluted that I may get some points wrong or at least get some points of emphasis wrong. But bear with me because you’ll be glad you did.
It all starts back in June when Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders of Arkansas takes a trade delegation to Paris, France to drum up business for Arkansas. She was visiting an aerospace trade show and aerospace and defense actually make up a significant amount of the state’s exports. (And yes, I’m withholding some details about what went down in Paris to build up dramatic tension. You have to keep reading.)
There’s a guy in Arkansas named Matt Campbell, a lawyer/blogger who seems to have mad FOIA skills. He publishes a blog called the Blue Hog Report. And save that link since this story almost entirely goes back to his on-going sleuthing. Campbell files a Freedom of Information Act request for the expense records for the trip. But what he gets back is very limited due to a law that allows the governor’s office to make exemptions to the state FOIA law. Campbell points out that these exemptions are only for security issues and it’s not at all clear why expense reports from a trade trip to Paris need to be withheld for the governor’s security. So now Campbell sues to get the records. Two days after Campbell sues Sanders calls a special session of the state legislature for, among other things, a dramatic revision of the state’s FOIA law.
Arkansas is a pretty Republican state at this point. But the FOIA changes are too big a pill for even state Republicans to swallow. A more limited reform is eventually passed. But at this point Sanders has made a pretty big story about what seems like a gadfly blogger just trying to go through some expense reports.
Eventually Campbell gets the documents. But there’s something weird. The governor’s office paid almost $20,000 for a podium it purchased from a company called Beckett Events, LLC. No one has seen the new podium and there seem to be all sorts of irregularities tied to how the thing was expensed.
Then it gets more fun. The state GOP steps in and says, “hey since everyone’s getting so bent out of shape about this, we’ll cover the cost of the podium. So everyone can just go back to what they were doing before this became an issue.”
Needless to say the state party stepping in to pay for the podium didn’t settle the matter.
As just a personal note, I continue to be confused not only about whether a podium was actually purchased but whether the people following the story think a podium was purchased. Are we talking about an elaborate ruse to cover up some hijinks in Paris or a nepotism-hire governor with truly high-falutin tastes in podiums? I’m still not totally clear on that point.
But here’s where the story gets even more interesting. Becket Events is owned by Virginia Beckett, a former hill staffer and GOP lobbyist. Beckett and another women named Hannah Stone consulted on the governor’s inauguration as part of the services provided by Beckett Events. But here’s the kicker. Late last month someone found images on social media showing Stone and Beckett checking into a Paris hotel at the time Gov. Sanders was there on her Paris aerospace junket. Then someone else noticed that both women also got subpoenas from the Jan. 6th committee. There’s actually been a troop of online sleuths vaguely reminiscent of the folks who social media’ed the Jan. 6th attackers who’ve come up with LOTS of pictures of the three all over the world. Here’s Sanders with Hannah (Salem) Stone in Finland, apparently on some White House trip, in 2018. They even found the two at Sanders’ inauguration with Kid Rock.
It’s not clear what Beckett and Stone’s Jan. 6th involvement has to do with Paris or the purported podium. But it at least added charge to the whole story.
And also, helluva a kegger in Paris, apparently.
As often happens in these kinds of stories, it’s not immediately clear what the wrongdoing could even be. Yes, $20,000 sounds like a lot of money for a podium. But maybe high tech podiums are more expensive than you and I think. Was Sanders partying in Paris with some DC GOP pals? That’s not great. But it certainly wouldn’t be something that brings down a Republican governor in a heavily Republican state. It’s simply not clear what the big deal even is. But Sanders’ response to it has been thermonuclear pretty much from the gitgo.
Also, the podium story seemed so weird and farfetched that a lot of the people were doubting that podium was even real. So the governor’s office finally released a photo of the podium. That raised even more questions since the podium in the photo looked identical to the podium Sanders used when she was inaugurated back in January. (And yes, Beckett and Stone worked the inauguration and were there in person.)
You know that old saw about how the cover-up is worse than the crime? That’s never been true and people who say that are idiots or at least they’re not people who cover scandals. You take the risk of covering something up because the thing itself is really bad. And coverups usually work. Even when they don’t work or you get caught for the cover up you still are mostly able to keep the underlying big bad thing under wraps. People do the cover up because usually it works and even when it doesn’t it partly works.
The latest development — or the one that really broke the story wide open happened last week when a whistleblower came forward who claims to have first hand evidence that the governor’s office illegally altered and withheld documents tied to the controversy. This seems to have been enough for a lot of state Republicans. One state Senator, James Hickey, called for the Legislative Joint Auditing Executive Committee to investigate the whole situation and get to the bottom of it. This would, critically, take the matter out of the Sanders’ administration’s hands. That committee meets next week.
And that, as near as I can tell, is where things stand. As noted, at least from a distance, I can’t tell whether we’re actually supposed to think a podium even exists. Or if it exists, how did Sanders get herself into this mess or, more specifically, what was she trying to hide? I’ve tried to cover a lot of ground here. So it’s quite possible I’ve left out key details or bobbled others. I’ll try to correct or add detail as we go forward.
My informants back in Arkansas tell me that Gov. Sanders had already burnt through a lot of good will through a generally high-handed and bulldozing approach to pushing through her legislative agenda — something many of us will likely recognize or find familiar from her stint as White House Press Secretary. She’s Arkansas and Trumpite royalty so she probably would have gotten away with all that. But it’s made even state Republicans not terribly interested in going out on a limb with her. Or rather joining her out on the limb she now occupies.