Ark. House ex­pels one of its own

The Saline Courier - - OPINION -

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

Twit­ter @steve­brawner.

STEVE BRAWNER

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