By Kevin Gosztola / The Dissenter
After a journalist sued the state for records on Arkansas Republican Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ travel expenses, Sanders called for an “emergency” legislative session to fundamentally change the state’s 50-year-old freedom of information law.
The urgency with which Sanders pushed for the changes garnered widespread attention, and a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) task force created by the state of Arkansas in 2017 unanimously opposed the initial bill. The task force also denounced Sanders for introducing the bill in a special session.
Still, Sanders spread enough lies to convince lawmakers to pass a bill that made it legal for the state government to hide files related to the “provision of security services” when the governor and other senior officials travel.
Prior to becoming governor, Sanders was the press secretary for President Donald Trump’s White House. Trump’s predecessor President Barack Obama developed a reputation for undermining national FOIA law while professing to be the Most Transparent Administration Ever™. Nevertheless, the Trump administration was more flagrant in its attacks on openness in government.
“FOIA rejections and redactions increased under Trump, while delays grew at most federal agencies and the number of FOIA lawsuits skyrocketed,” Philip Eil wrote in a report on Trump’s FOIA record for the Columbia Journalism Review.
Eil noted, “At one point, the Department of Interior proposed new rules that would make it more difficult for members of the public to file requests, before retracting the changes due to public outcry. While serving as the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, John Kelly encouraged an official to avoid sending emails in order to evade FOIA. (Similar allegations about email shenanigans were later raised about Trump’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.)”
In March 2020, according to Eil, “[A] high-level Department of Justice official made the absurd charge that FOIA lawsuits had become a way for plaintiffs to generate attorney’s fees (which would surely make them one of the least effective get-rich-quick schemes in American history).”
Sanders, who was elected governor on November 8, 2022, brought this hostility toward transparency with her to the Arkansas capitol in Little Rock. She even adopted the ridiculous mindset that FOIA lawsuits against government agencies have become “get-rich-quick schemes.”
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‘They Don’t Care About Transparency’
Journalist Matt Campbell filed a FOIA lawsuit for the Arkansas state police’s records on Sanders’ travel, the police’s expenditures for “securing” her travel, and any related communications. Sanders responded by fraudulently stirring panic over the “safety” of her children.
“Some are weaponizing FOIA and taking advantage of our laws to hamper state government and enrich themselves,” Sanders declared. “They don’t care about transparency. They want to waste taxpayer dollars, slow down our bold conservative agenda, and frankly, put my family’s lives at stake.”
Sanders complained that Arkansas’ FOIA law had not been updated since 1967. As she put it, access that the public has had to email, cellphones, and text messaging for well over a decade had created risks.
She also blamed “aggressive polarization” for endangering her and her family, a political dynamic that she fueled as Trump’s White House press secretary and by delivering the Republicans’ response to President Joe Biden’s “State of the Union” address.
Days before the special legislative session, radio journalist Matthew Moore, who lives in northwest Arkansas, submitted a FOIA request to the Arkansas State Police for a list of FOIA requests that the police had received in 2023 for flight logs, manifests, and travel reimbursement records. Perhaps, this would confirm whether citizens trying to target the governor through FOIA was an actual problem.
Moore found that only five FOIA requests had been submitted by Matt Campbell and Mike Wickline, a reporter with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. (Wickline had requested records on FOIA requests submitted by Campbell.)
“None of those requests include [Sanders’] children,” Moore added. “None of those requests were for ‘security plans.’ None of those requests were from the Oklahoma man who threatened the Governor and was later arrested.”
An Oklahoma man pled guilty in August to posting threatening messages on Twitter, but he never made a plan to kill Sanders.
“Security plans” were already exempt under the law, according to Chris Jones, a Democrat who ran for Arkansas governor in 2022 against Sanders.
The falsehoods that Sanders spread about the “weaponization” of FOIA did not stop there. Sanders claimed that she “had to deal with credible death threats when [she] was in the White House, becoming the first White House press secretary in the history of our country to require Secret Service protection, something that is generally reserved for the president, the vice president, and their families.”
But the United States Secret Service was not temporarily assigned to protect Sanders because of “death threats.” Agents were assigned in June 2018 after a Virginia restaurant called the Red Hen refused to serve Sanders and asked her to leave the restaurant because she worked for the Trump administration.
“When I was campaigning for this office, we had violent people track our movements to try to do us harm. A man near Russellville [in Arkansas] was arrested for threatening to shoot me,” Sanders said.
If a man near Russellville threatened to shoot Sanders and if “violent people” did, in fact, “track” the Sanders campaign, Sanders waited to disclose these alleged incidents when such incendiary statements could help her overcome bipartisan opposition to gutting the state’s freedom of information law.
‘This Is Not About ‘Security’ In Any Sense Of The Word’
Several Republican lawmakers recognized that the governor’s proposals would significantly alter FOIA and undermine democracy.
The Pulaski County Republican Committee put out a strong statement:
The legislature is being asked to pass a retroactive law that would not only [gut] transparency in this state, but would also excuse the Arkansas State Police for intentionally violating the law for months. Worse, you’re being asked to do this not just based on an outright lie.
This is not about ‘security’ in any sense of the word. ASP has already provided the dates and times of Sanders’ flights, the location of each departure and takeoff, and the emails from Sanders’ staff, reserving the plane for each use. If this were about security, ASP would not have released any of that.
Instead, the only things they’ve refused to release are the names of people who traveled with the Governor and the expenditures incurred by the ASP when the Governor decided that she wasn’t happy with the usual two troopers on an international trip and, instead, demanded five troopers go with her.
Julie Mayberry, a Republican lawmaker, wondered whether Republicans “would have supported similar provisions when they were the minority party and a Democrat occupied the Governor’s Mansion.”
“Anytime a lawsuit is going, are we going to be asked to come up here and change the law?” Mayberry said, according to the Arkansas Advocate.
Sanders conjured fears of Chinese interference. “Right now, a Chinese state-owned company operating in Arkansas could use their employees to FOIA for internal government documents.”
“Somebody suing the state of Arkansas can FOIA our attorneys to determine our legal strategy. That’s not just crazy. That’s a waste of taxpayer resources,” Sanders further declared.
This was yet another example of Sanders being dishonest. The “working papers” of the state’s attorney general were already protected under FOIA.
Sanders emphasized the fact that the U.S. government has regularly invoked the “deliberate process privilege” exemption to justify her push for secrecy. Its use and abuse has been regularly challenged by press freedom organizations.
For example, the Obama administration initially claimed this FOIA exemption to hide records on the power that the president had assumed to extrajudicially kill terrorism suspects in foreign countries. Watchdog groups criticized Obama for treating the world as a battlefield and creating a body of “secret law.”
Lawmakers not only rejected legislation that would have included a “deliberative process privilege” exemption, but they also refused to back Sanders’ call for a change that would make it harder for attorneys to recoup fees in FOIA lawsuits.
Sanders’ Secrecy Victory Foolishly Hailed By Journalists
Unfortunately, the Arkansas Press Association and Arkansas Broadcasters Association, which initially opposed Sanders’ effort, wound up endorsing the outcome.
The Arkansas Press Association said that the new secrecy granted elected officials, such as Sanders, “a level of safety they deserve.” The group failed to acknowledge how it is now easier for the governor to conceal meetings with top donors.
Max Brantley, a retired senior editor for the Arkansas Times, called out the Arkansas Broadcasters Association. “You have accepted [Sanders’] excuse without mentioning [the] existing shield for security and absence of evidence for [the] need of over broad, expense shielding secrecy bill. Shameful capitulation.”
Celebrating her secrecy victory, Sanders deployed yet another falsehood: that the changes will stop “bad actors” from “weaponizing FOIA” against the Arkansas State Police.
Matt Campbell, the journalist who spurred the frenzy to alter FOIA, became sick with COVID-19 just as the legislature passed a pared-back bill. He could no longer attend a hearing on his FOIA lawsuit. And since it was too late to obtain a continuance, Campbell was forced to withdraw his challenge over improperly withheld records (though he may refile his complaint later).
Nevertheless, the Arkansas State Police released several files to Campbell, and he posted portions to illustrate that Sanders may be trying to hide whether she’s illegally spending campaign funds on state planes. Or that she spent nearly $20,000 in taxpayer money on a “custom” podium for a trip to Europe.
Or that Sanders wasted additional money on her Arkansas State Police detail so they could accompany her to EuroDisney.
Managing editor of Shadowproof, host of the “Dissenter Weekly,” co-host of the podcast “Unauthorized Disclosure,” and member of Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ)