Sarah Sanders Gets What She Wants in Arkansas
Does Sanders control the Republican Party of Arkansas and all the moves it makes?
The Republican Party of Arkansas didn't just reimburse the state for a controversial $19,029.25 lectern invoiced by Virginia Beckett of Beckett Events LLC.
Salem Strategies received $105,000 from the party on Dec. 27, 2022, according to the Republican Party of Arkansas’ “Political Party Quarterly Reporting Form” filed with the Arkansas Secretary of State's website. Salem Strategies was heavily involved in Gov. Sarah Sanders’ Election Night festivities.
Additionally, Team Harbinger LLC received $104,132.60 from the Republican Party of Arkansas (RPA) and is listed on the same page of the report as Salem Strategies. Harbinger is possibly connected to Beckett through Josh Rodman, who is believed to be her husband.
Sanders heavily controls the state’s GOP, according to party insiders.
Since her win on Nov. 8, Sanders has been a hands-on player in the party, moving people like chess pieces in roles she wants them to have.
She's also done almost the impossible — uniting all political parties to fight for more transparency and accountability in state government — because of a special-called September legislative session to gut the state’s Freedom of Information Act.
The Sanders Administration is under a glaring spotlight over the lectern bought with a state credit card and reimbursed by the Republican Party of Arkansas. The ever-evolving scandal has become known as Podiumgate.
In Deep Political Waters
On Dec. 30, 2022, Sanders nominated Joseph Wood as Secretary of the Department of Transformation and Shared Services (TSS).
That department manages internal state services such as employee benefits, information technology, building and personnel management, geographic information systems, and state surplus.
TSS also oversees purchases such as the lectern.
When Sanders appointed Wood, he was finishing his second term as Washington County Judge in Northwest Arkansas. In 2022, Wood ran unsuccessfully for Lt. Governor in the Republican primary.
Last year, Wood and other Washington County officials were sued for Freedom of Information violations — failure to notify about a public meeting and to provide documents in a timely manner.
Just eight days before Sanders’ appointed Wood to TSS, the case was heard in Circuit Court in Washington County where the judge found that the county had violated FOIA in the two instances.
While Woods was at the helm of TSS, the Sanders Administration purchased the lectern at the center of the Podiumgate scandal that has set Arkansas politics on fire.
An invoice obtained by Matt Campbell of the Blue Hog Report under the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act showed that Beckett invoiced the state on June 8 for a lectern paid for with a state credit card.
At the time the lectern was bought, Cody Hiland served as the party’s chairman. He was elected in December.
On July 3, Sanders appointed Hiland to a vacancy on the state Supreme Court.
On the same day Sanders appointed Hiland, she also endorsed Wood to fill the RPA chair vacancy on X, formerly Twitter.
An anonymous source provided this letter to South Arkansas Reckoning about Wood’s run for RPA chairman. The letter indicates Wood is willing to accept a paycut from his job at TSS to party chairman.
In August, the Arkansas GOP 2023 Summer Committee Meeting was held in North Little Rock. The day after former Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy spoke at the RPA's annual dinner, the party held a meeting to elect its chairman.
Sarah Dunklin, the party's 1st Congressional District Chair, also ran to fill the RPA vacancy.
Sanders nominated Woods for the chair position. Keep Arkansas Legal shared a video of her speech on YouTube.
Wood also spoke at the meeting along with Dunklin.
Sanders’ choice became the chair of the party.
It's unclear when Wood specifically took the RPA's helm in September. The party did not post when he took over as chairman on its X account or website.
Wood's salary as the TSS cabinet secretary was $172,000, according to the TSS website. According to RPA expenditure filings, Hiland made approximately $4,018 a month or about $48,000 a year.
Ultimately, Sanders’ RPA with Wood as the party chair reimbursed the state for the lectern, paying the total amount with private inaugural funds.
A curious lectern purchased by the state from a friend of Sanders’. A former cabinet secretary, whose agency was tasked to “identity efficiencies and cost saving measures” now in charge of the state party. The RPA’s reimbursement to the state for the lectern. A special-called session to change the state's Freedom of Information Act.
All of these chess moves by Sanders may have put the Republican Party of Arkansas in check.