The Arkansas House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly Friday to expel Rep. Mickey Gates, a Republican from Hot Springs, ending a yearlong stalemate in which the lawmaker refused calls from Republicans and Democrats to step down over his failure to pay state income taxes.
The 88-4 vote easily surpassed the two-thirds threshold needed to expel a member. It marked the first time in almost two centuries that a member had been expelled by the Arkansas House.
After the vote, top Republicans, including Gov. Asa Hutchinson and Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, released statements praising the move, as did the Democratic Party of Arkansas. Hutchinson said he would begin the process of calling a special election to fill Gates' seat.
The resolution to remove Gates was filed by Speaker Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado.
In a floor speech urging members to vote for removal, Shepherd alluded to the House's reputation after several years of federal corruption investigations into the Legislature, which has resulted in convictions against six former House and Senate members.
Gates' 2018 arrest on state tax charges was unrelated to those investigations.
"I think today this is a question for each of us: What are our standards?" Shepherd said. "What kind of House are we going to be? How do we want the people of Arkansas to view us?"
Gates, a three-term lawmaker, had faced dim prospects heading into Friday's caucus. In a final poll conducted by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette last week, 59 lawmakers had said they were ready to vote for Gates' removal, and several expressed frustration at his refusal to resign. Expulsion required 67 votes. (The 100-seat House had one vacancy going into Friday.)
Still, others said they would be willing to listen to Gates' defense before making their decision final.
Gates defended himself to colleagues in a meandering 25-minute speech that included references to the American Revolution, the Emancipation Proclamation, school desegregation and the Titanic.
His argument centered around two main points: He has not been found guilty of a crime and removing him would set a problematic precedent.
"Today in this chamber we are on the verge of making history," he said. "But as I have stated previously, making history is not necessarily good, bad, right or wrong."
Gates attempted several jokes to break the tension in the room, but they mostly were met with silence.
After Gates' fate became apparent on the large vote-tally board on the House floor, the chamber fell into a hush, and members began to move to the exits. Gates remained seated for a few minutes, shaking hands with some of his colleagues on their way out.
Gates declined to talk to reporters as he left the Capitol, saying his father had fallen and was being taken to the hospital.
Gates was arrested in June 2018 and accused of owing more than $259,000 in back taxes to the state. Still, he defied calls to step down from most of the state's Republican leadership and was handily reelected to his seat last November.
Gates has accused state tax auditors of treating him unfairly, implying that he may have been targeted because he filed bills that the Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration opposed. He said the process had been a "hellish nightmare" for his family.
Efforts to remove the lawmaker ramped up earlier this year after Gates pleaded no contest in June to a single charge of failing to file a tax return. Prosecutors dropped the other charges as part of the deal, but they could be refiled if Gates fails to comply with the terms of his probation.
Shepherd had been one of the few Republican leaders in the state to resist calling for Gates to resign after his initial arrest. After Gates pleaded no contest, however, Shepherd reversed and urged Gates to give up his seat.
Gates again rebuffed those calls, arguing that his plea deal did not amount to a conviction because his case can be dismissed without a final adjudication if he completes all the terms of his probation. Those terms include paying the state $74,789 in back taxes.
"I stand before you an innocent man," Gates said Friday from the House floor.
Shepherd on Friday acknowledged that Gates had properly taken advantage of laws that allowed him to avoid a finding of guilt, but the speaker noted that Gates was barred from owning a gun, had to submit to DNA testing and faced travel restrictions.
In September, Shepherd filed a formal resolution to remove Gates, which pointed to language in state law and the state constitution as the basis for removal for "infamous" crimes.
Shepherd filed the resolution under Article 5 of the Arkansas Constitution, which gives both chambers of the General Assembly the authority to expel a member with two-thirds vote.
In his floor speech and the resolution, Shepherd cited Act 894 of 2019 -- a law that precludes someone from holding a state constitutional office if they have been found guilty or pleaded guilty or no contest to a "public trust crime." Shepherd, though, has been careful to explain that his resolution does not rely on Act 894; instead, he argued that Act 894 further illustrates those actions that the current House considers unacceptable.
"Quite simply we have the power to expel a member for any reason that we see fit," Shepherd said.
He told the caucus that "the onus" had been placed on the House once Gates waived his defense in court.
"It generally has not come to this," Shepherd told reporters afterward. "But in this circumstance, it seemed that it was a necessary step. ... One of the things about going through this process is that it does send a message to the people of Arkansas about how we view our service and what kind of standards we expect for ourselves."
Before making his defense on the House floor, Gates and his attorney, Jeff Rosenzweig, had filled a conference room table on the Capitol's fourth floor with sheets of tax returns, W-2 forms, printouts of communications with the Department of Finance and Administration and other materials that Gates said would exculpate him.
Only a handful of members drifted in and out of the conference room in the hours before the caucus. Two of them, Reps. Gayla McKenzie, R-Gravette, and John Payton, R-Wilburn, later were two of the four lawmakers who voted against expulsion. The other two were Gates and Rep. Josh Miller, R-Heber Springs.
Rep. Johnny Rye, R-Trumann, said he found the documents unconvincing.
"Man, it still goes back to integrity," he said. Rye later voted for the resolution.
McKenzie said after Friday's vote that she initially supported Gates' removal, but she changed her mind after further study. She cited several reasons for her change of heart, but chiefly, she didn't feel the expulsion was necessary because Gates' constituents will soon be able to decide whether he should continue to represent them.
Gates has said that even if expelled, he would sign up in the November candidate filing period to run again in 2020 to represent House District 22, which covers part of Garland and Saline counties.
McKenzie also said she would have preferred that the House had used a process in which the expulsion proceedings began with a hearing before the Arkansas Claims Commission, which would have made a nonbinding recommendation.
In that process, Gates would have been afforded the opportunity to have an attorney and present evidence.
"Sometimes there's a rest of the story," McKenzie said.
But Shepherd said he consulted with House staff members and legislative attorneys and they determined that the Claims Commission process was not the way the House should proceed.
The last time a member was expelled from the House was in 1837, before the adoption of the state's current constitution in 1874. Then-House Speaker John Wilson was booted from the body after stabbing a member to death on the floor during a debate over wolf-scalp legislation.
The unprecedented nature of Friday's vote under the state's current constitution prompted some lawmakers to raise questions about the process, both before the caucus meeting and on Friday.
Payton, the lawmaker from Wilburn who ultimately voted no, made a motion at the start of the caucus to have the vote held by secret ballot. The House voted down that idea.
"I believe that we should move forward with a secret ballot when it comes to a final vote on this resolution so as it may be your decision is not based on a friendship, or somebody you're mad at, or whether or not it means you'll get reelected in the next election cycle," Payton said.
Shepherd opposed Payton's motion, saying both the public and Gates deserved transparency in the House's decision.
Immediately after the vote, House Chief of Staff Roy Ragland delivered a letter from Shepherd to the governor's office, informing Hutchinson of Gates' removal. Hutchinson's spokeswoman later released a statement on the governor's behalf.
"I know it was a tough day for the House of Representatives to vote to remove one of their colleagues, but the law is clear and public responsibility demands that public officials be held to a higher standard," the statement said. "His actions were certainly grounds for expulsion, and the House did the right thing by following the law."
The governor did not immediately set a date for the special election. However, a Republican who has already announced plans to run for Gates' seat in the 2020 general election, Don Pierce, said Friday that he would likely also run in a special election.
Gates' plans to run again could face an obstacle: a law passed this year that prevents those who have been convicted or pleaded guilty or no contest to a felony from running for the Legislature.
Gates has argued that the law, which he voted for, is unconstitutional, and he has hinted at a lawsuit if he's prevented from running again.
Next year's primary election will be March 3, followed by the general election on Nov. 3.
House Speaker Matthew Shepherd (right) shakes hands with now former state Rep. Mickey Gates on Friday after Gates’ ouster. Gates, a three-term Republican lawmaker from Hot Springs, had refused calls to step down. More photos are available at arkansasonline.com/1012gates/
“Quite simply we have the power to expel a member for any reason that we see fit,” House Speaker Matthew Shepherd said Friday in presenting the resolution to expel Mickey Gates from his seat as a Republican representative from Hot Springs.
A Section on 10/12/2019