Ark. House expels one of its own
There are two certainties, Arkansas Speaker of the House Matthew Shepherd, R-EL Dorado, told his colleagues Friday: death and taxes.
Rep. Mickey Gates, R-hot Springs, finally had succumbed to the inevitability of the second. And this day, his political life was on trial, with Shepherd the reluctant prosecutor and Gates’ fellow legislators his jury.
Friday was a somber day. The last time House members had expelled a member was in 1837 after the House speaker stabbed to death a fellow member on the floor.
Shepherd, an attorney, made his case by saying the Arkansas Constitution allows a two-thirds House majority to expel a member for any reason – but with Gates, there is a good one.
He had pled no contest to a single charge of not filing or paying his taxes after being charged for not filing returns from 2012 to 2017. He’s paying the state at least $74,789 for the years 2012 through 2014, with his debt for the later years to be determined after a December hearing.
This year, lawmakers passed
Act 894 saying anyone who pleads guilty or no contest to a “public trust crime” or is found guilty cannot serve in the Legislature.
Clearly not getting the hint,
Gates was one of 71 House members who voted for it. Now he says it adds an extraconstitutional qualification for service, an argument he will use if he sues.
Shepherd, who had encouraged Gates to resign, acknowledged the constitutional question without conceding, but he said the law is useful because it at least expresses the General Assembly’s reasoning behind an expulsion.
Gates’ no contest plea means he can’t own a firearm, has had to submit DNA samples and has had travel restrictions, so surely he cannot serve in the people’s House. Shepherd also reminded legislators their reputation has suffered after six other former legislators have been convicted of corruption charges.
Gates was unmoved and unrepentant. He apparently truly believes he is innocent and is being persecuted for his legislative efforts to restrain government. In his speech, he told his friends and family, “It is not fair that you have had to suffer with the result of my fight to make political change.”
He then recited a long list of historical events including the sinking of the Titanic and the 1957 Little Rock Central High crisis. He seemed to be making some point about bad decisions and historical injustices, and that expelling him would be both. He concluded with the biblical story of Daniel in the lion’s den.
As the speech wound down, he made his strongest arguments.
If he fulfills the terms of the no contest plea, then in the law’s eyes he’ll be not guilty. He said if he can be expelled from the House by a two-thirds vote, “Then none of us are safe.” He said his constituents re-elected him with a 59% majority last year, even after the state had filed charges.
The vote was 88-4 to expel, with seven not voting. Gates was one of the four.
Could he have saved his political life with a different speech? Probably not. Shepherd would not have organized the House caucus meeting without being confident he had the votes.
Still, little is certain in life but death and taxes. Rep. Doug House, R-north Little Rock, told me he had wanted to hear a defense from Gates. “Turned out he had none,” he said. Another legislator told me, “I perceive legislators were looking for facts as to how he was not guilty. I don’t think those facts were presented.”
Among those not voting was
Rep. Bruce Cozart, R-hot Springs, who said the matter would have been addressed by voters next year, and Rep. Reginald Murdock, D-marianna, who said he didn’t have enough information. Asked if he were concerned about setting a precedent whereby the Republican majority might expel a Democrat, he responded, “No sir, not at all. I think my Republican colleagues have more integrity than that.”
Another election is approaching, and it’s unclear if Gates can contest for it now that he’s a private citizen. If someone tries to stop him based on Act 894, he could challenge it in court. If he’s on the ballot, he could be elected. And then House members would be serving with a colleague they had expelled. Under the Constitution, they can’t expel a member twice for the same offense.
Those are all possibilities, not certainties. We all know there aren’t many of those.
Steve Brawner is a syndicated columnist in Arkansas and former managing editor of The Saline Courier. Email him at brawner[email protected] Follow him on