Arkansas lawmakers advance plan to shield Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders' travel, security records

Arkansas lawmakers have voted to restrict the public's access to records about Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders' travel and security

Andrew Demillo
Wednesday 13 September 2023 20:58 BST
Arkansas-Public Records
Arkansas-Public Records (AL DRAGO)

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Arkansas lawmakers voted Wednesday to shield travel and security records for Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, a day after ditching a more far-reaching proposal that critics said would weaken government transparency.

The bill approved by the majority-Republican Senate on a 29-2 vote would allow the state to wall off details about the security provided Sanders and other constitutional officers, including who travels on the State Police airplane and the cost of individual trips. The measure is expected to go before the House for a final vote Thursday.

"This is a great starting place for making our government safer and more effective, and I look forward to its final passage," Sanders posted on X, formerly Twitter.

Sanders and Republican legislators on Tuesday backed off a broader plan that would have closed off access to other records, including any “reflecting communications” between the governor's office and her cabinet secretaries. It also would have created an attorney-client privilege exemption from the open-records law and changed the standard for awarding attorneys' fees in lawsuits over open records.

Those changes sparked an outcry from critics ranging rom media groups to conservatives who said they would have created massive holes in the Freedom of Information Act, the 1967 law protecting the public's access to government records. Some transparency advocates said the security exemption still goes too far and prevents the public from seeing whether taxpayer dollars are spent properly.

“If a governor is flying on a taxpayer plane, I want to know what those expenses are. I want to be able to see the receipts. I want to be able to see the documents,” Joey McCutchen, a Fort Smith attorney who has specialized in public records cases, told lawmakers. “I want to know exactly what’s being spent.”

But other groups that had opposed the broader exemptions said their concerns were allayed by the bill narrowing its focus to security.

The Arkansas Press Association said the latest bills “give our elected officials and their families a level of safety they deserve.”

The Saline County Republican Committee had also opposed the broader restrictions, but member Scott Gray told a Senate panel that the safety of Sanders and future governors “is of utmost importance, and this bill accomplishes that without curtailing people’s FOIA rights.”

The legislation would require the state to release quarterly reports to the Legislature listing how much is being spent on the governor's security by category each month. It also would cover records going back to June 1, 2022, a provision that state police said was needed to cover their security preparations for whoever became the next governor after the Democratic and Republican nominees were elected last year.

Sanders has argued the security exemptions are needed to protect her and her family, and has cited threats she's received dating back to her time as former President Donald Trump's press secretary.

Sanders is seeking the limits as State Police is being sued by an attorney and blogger who has accused the agency of illegally withholding records about the governor’s travel and security. A hearing was scheduled Thursday in Pulaski County court on the lawsuit.

Sen. Clarke Tucker, the only Democrat in the Senate to vote for the measure, said he still has concerns about parts of the legislation, including the retroactive portion.

“It's probably a little bit broader than it should be,” Tucker said. “However, when it comes to the safety and security of the governor and her family, I think it's important to err on the side of their security rather than having it be too narrow and pose some kind of security risk.”

Democratic Rep. Nicole Clowney, who opposed the measure when it came before a House committee, said she agreed with protecting security plans, but that “when we're taking rights away from Arkansans, we should be doing that with as small of a chisel as possible.”

The fight has overshadowed a special session that began on Monday. Lawmakers heard several hours of testimony during an occasionally heated hearing on the more expansive bill on Tuesday.

Other proposals Sanders had placed on the agenda, including a cut in the state's corporate and individual income taxes, have moved through the Legislature much more easily.

Senate President Bart Hester said he’s asked a working group — formed by the attorney general to review the state’s public records laws — to study the other proposed restrictions.

“This is something we take some more time and continue to look at," Hester said.

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