Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders has blinked.
Following a long and messy second day that saw dozens of Arkansans testify before the State Agencies Committee in the Senate, Sanders called for both the House and the Senate to limit FOIA reforms to only touch security, backing down from her attempt to shield the executive branch from public scrutiny.
Push back against Sanders’ reforms was swift and fierce, with Republican and Democrat voters locking arms to say no against the blatant attempt to upend Arkansas’s long-standing tradition of being one of the most transparent states in the Union.
While Arkansas’s beloved FOIA appears to be safe for the moment, Sanders’s attempt to hide her government affairs marks another attempt by a Huckabee to upend public transparency while serving in Arkansas’s highest seat of power.
Governor Mike Huckabee and the destroyed hard drives
After serving as Lieutenant Governor from 1993 to 1996, Mike Huckabee rose to become Arkansas’s 44th Governor after Governor Jim Guy Tucker was convicted on one count of arranging nearly $3 million in fraudulent loans during the Whitewater controversy.
That controversy involved President Bill Clinton’s involvement in the failed Whitewater Development Corporation, who had invested and lost money in the business as it attempted to develop vacation properties along the White River near Flippin, Arkansas.
Clinton would later be alleged to have pressured David Hale into giving Susan McDougal, Clinton’s partner in the Whitewater land deal, an illegal loan of $300,000. McDougal would later receive a pardon from Clinton before he left office in Washington, DC.
Things would not play out so favorably for Tucker, who received a lenient four years’ probation at the cost of the Governor’s Office to Huckabee, who threatened to have him impeached after he attempted to delay his resignation.
While serving as Governor, Huckabee was largely hailed as a successful Republican governor, eventually earning the title “Friend of a Taxpayer” in 2001 by Americans for Tax Reform due to his cut in statewide spending.
He easily secured his re-election in 1998 against Democratic candidate Bill Bristow, becoming Arkansas’s third elected Republican governor since Reconstruction. A CNN exit poll revealed that Huckabee received 48% of the African-American vote during his 1998 election.
Yet, his time in office wasn’t without scandal.
In his last year of office, and in his lead-up to his run for President in 2007, Huckabee was found to have used Arkansas State Police’s Beechcraft King Air 200 turbo-prop to wrack up more than 1,500 hours of flight time while traveling the country, wracking up $600,000 in taxpayer costs from 2002 to 2006.
Many of his flights were out of state, prompting his PAC, Hope for America, to reimburse taxpayers for portions of his flights. At the time, ASP did not record if each individual flight was for state business or personal use. Huckabee used the plane a staggering 80 times in 2005, and 55 times in 2006.
After leaving office, Governor Mike Beebe announced that the plane was ridden to within 75 hours of exhaustion and that it needed to either be rebuilt or replaced. The costs of rebuilding the plane’s engine would have run $800,000.
Governor Beebe ended up replacing the plane with a new one at the cost of $4 million to Arkansas taxpayers.
But Huckabee’s end-of-office scandal didn’t end there. In Jan. 2007, the day after Huckabee left the Governor’s Mansion, Jim Parsons of Bella Vista filed a FOIA request to obtain “a copy of all information” on the Huckabee administration’s computers.
Governor Beebe responded to the FOIA request by sending Parsons a Jan. 9 memo addressed to Huckabee from the Arkansas Department of Information Systems, reporting that all of the gubernatorial hard drives had been “crushed under the supervision of a designee of [Huckabee’s] office.”
It would later be revealed that Brenda Turner, Huckabee’s chief of staff, had overseen the destruction of the hard drives.
Altogether, Huckabee had 83 hard drives and four servers destroyed. The computers from which the hard drives were removed and destroyed were located in the state Capitol, a state office in Washington, the Arkansas State Police airport hangar, the governor’s mansion and the Arkansas State Police drug office.
Backups of the hard drive were given to Turner and Turner alone. None were given to the Arkansas Department of Information Systems. Huckabee spent $13,000 in taxpayer money to destroy his records.
Governor Beebe would spend $335,000 to replace all of the destroyed property.
Parsons would go on to file two separate ethics complaints with the Arkansas State Ethics Commission, but both were denied. Parsons also filed a criminal complaint against Huckabee.
The Attorney General’s Office declined to bring charges against Huckabee over the destroyed hard drives despite the Attorney General listing tampering with records as a Class D felony on his website at the time.
Parsons would then file a lawsuit against Huckabee, but his case was thrown out of court in 2008. In his defense, Huckabee said the equipment was destroyed to protect the personal data of constituents and employees.
Turner would continue to be the sole holder of Huckabee’s records.
Sanders vs. Blue Hog Report
In the lead-up to Governor Sanders’s call for FOIA reforms last Friday, the new governor had been battling Blue Hog Report blogger and Little Rock attorney Matt Campbell over his FOIA requests regarding her use of ASP’s plane when traveling across the state and internationally.
On Sept. 6, two days before Sanders called for a special session, Campbell filed a suit against the Arkansas State Police, claiming state police would not release public records related to Sanders’s use of state police planes and expenses related to ASP personnel traveling to Europe with the governor.
In that instance, Sanders requested five ASP officers to travel overseas with her instead of the usual two. Sanders attended the Paris Air Show during her trip.
Campbell also requested records detailing the costs of providing security for Sanders and her husband, Bryan Sanders. The records requested included flight logs, receipts, invoices and communications logs for past trips.
The blogger only received part of his request. State police attempted to cite a state statute for not turning over records to Campbell, but the controversial attorney told KATV that the statute doesn’t apply to his case.
“It’s a statute that just exempts records related to the security at the governor’s mansion and on the mansion grounds and I’ve pointed out to them,” Campbell told KATV. “That has nothing to do with what the state police spent to travel to Europe with the governor.”
Campbell further said state police refuse to “give up” the list of people who flew with the governor on some of her flights, and that passenger names were redacted in the documents he did receive.
Campbell has also recently exposed Arkansas Secretary of Education Jacob Oliva’s propensity to purchase expensive flights and hotel rooms while traveling for work. The blogger also dropped several screenshots on X (Twitter), showing former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson wracking up thousands in taxpayer dollars while traveling during his last few months in office.
Hutchinson’s travel records would have been retroactively hidden if Sanders’ proposed FOIA changes were approved in the state legislature. In fact, both versions of the draft bill, including the one that was released late Monday evening, would have effectively shielded the entirety of Arkansas’s executive branch from public scrutiny.
Hutchinson created the Arkansas FOIA Task Force in 2017 in an attempt to modernize the state’s transparency laws. The task force rejected Sanders’s special session to reform FOIA in a unanimous decision during a meeting on Monday.
“The problem is, when you’re taking the plane anytime you want to go anywhere in the state and now all of a sudden you also have five to six people flying with you everywhere you go,” said Campbell. “If you’re going to take an entourage in a state plane, I think we at least deserve to know who it is that’s flying on the state dime.”