For the first time in more than 100 years, a sitting member of the Arkansas General Assembly was kicked out of the 100-member House of Representatives on a charge of violating the public trust. The action was taken during a Friday (Oct. 11) showdown at the State Capitol.
Rep. Mickey Gates, R-Hot Springs, was expelled by a vote of 88-4 after House Speaker Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado, brought House Resolution 1079 to the floor.
In making his case under Article 5, Section 12 of the Arkansas Constitution, Shepherd said the law provides that each chamber of the General Assembly has the power to expel or discipline a member with the concurrence of a two-thirds vote by the body. Shepherd’s resolution stated that by entering a plea of no contest to a single charge of violating state law for failure to pay or file a tax return, a felony, Gates violated the public trust. The El Dorado attorney also argued that under Act 894, which was approved earlier by the legislature in the recent 2019 session, a person convicted of public trust crime is ineligible to hold or run as a candidate for constitutional office under Article 5, Section 9 of the state constitution.
“Quite simply, we have the power to expel a member for any reason that we see fit,” Shepherd told his colleagues in a 10-minute speech. “At the point he pleaded no contest … he placed the onus on us to expel Rep. Gates. I believe that the plea of no contest to a felony, indeed to a felony charge of this nature particularly when you consider it in light of our work and duties as state representatives, justifies expulsion. The violation and paying of taxes to the state is a basic responsibility of us as citizens.”
Before Shepherd came to the floor, a motion by Rep. John Payton, R-Beebe, to hold a secret ballot on Shepherd’s resolution was denied on a voice vote. The House Speaker also answered a volley of questions from House members questioning him on his legal reasons for bringing the action against Rep. Gates instead of going through the courts or the state Ethics Commission.
“I think this is a matter for the House to decide,” he explained. “We are handling this in a way that I best see fit. I believe it is appropriate, consistent with the duties of the House.”
After Shepherd took his seat and returned to his position overseeing the body, Gates came to the floor to speak against the resolution for expulsion during an unusual speech that included reciting a long list of events in American history from the American Revolution and the Civil War to the Little Rock Central crisis and Duke lacrosse rape scandal. Calling the situation a “hellish nightmare,” Gates noted that the caucus vote concerning him was also a noted event in Arkansas history, but made the case for members to vote against the resolution because he had not been convicted of any crime and had not been given the presumption of innocence during a one-hour hearing.
“I have not been found guilty,” he stated emphatically. “I stand before you today an innocent man.”
At the end of his 30-minute speech, Gates told the story of Daniel in the Lion’s Den in the Old Testament, noting that “conniving politicians” made a false accusation against the Old Testament prophet that was later proven false. He then asked his colleagues to vote their conscience, saying he would not judge them on how they voted today.
“I encourage you first to vote your conscience and then with your district. I believe today there will be votes for different reasons, but I trust you to do was sent to do. You do what is right first and then try to make the people happy,” said the Hot Springs lawmaker.
Gates, a Republican who represented House District 22 that includes portions of Garland and Saline County, had until today rejected all calls by House Speaker Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado, Gov. Asa Hutchinson and other leaders in both parties to step down nearly three months after the Republican lawmaker was arrested for failing to pay income taxes for a period of 14 years.
Gates had also previously threatened to seek re-election for his House District seat if he was expelled from the 100-member body by at least 67 of his colleagues. Earlier this month, Republican Don Pierce of Hot Springs announced he will be a candidate for the seat then had by Gates. Pierce previously sought the nomination in the 2018 election and has since been appointed to the Arkansas Physical Therapy Board by Gov. Asa Hutchinson.
Under House rules, if there is a vacancy in the Arkansas legislature, the sitting governor must call for a special election to fill the empty seat immediately. If the special election is to fill a House seat, the county board of election commissioners representing the vacant district conducts the election. All special elections must be held on the second Tuesday of the month, unless the second Tuesday of the month falls on a legal holiday or is in June during an even-numbered year.
Gates had been charged with not filing state tax returns from 2012 through 2017, but had worked out an agreement with Garland County prosecutors this week to reduce his charges to one count of not filing and paying income taxes. Gates will pay nearly $75,000 in back taxes, penalty and interest and serve six years of probation. A hearing later this year could add to more payments or charges.
Gov. Hutchinson had also called for Gates to leave his elected office after he worked out the pact to pay part of back taxes that he owed. “It is unacceptable for a public official, particularly a state legislator, to continue to hold office after being found guilty of a criminal violation of our tax laws. He should resign or be removed from office,” Hutchinson said earlier this summer.
Gates was serving his second term in the Arkansas House, where he was a member of the House Education Committee and the House Aging, Children and Youth, Legislative and Military Affairs Committee. Last summer, after Gates surrendered the Arkansas State Police for “willfully” failing to file tax returns, Shepherd suspended the Hot Springs Republican from all House leadership and select committee positions and responsibilities.
Gates did serve during the 92nd General Assembly that adjourned in May. Ironically, the Garland County legislator was one of 71 “yea” votes in the House for Senate Bill 650, which is the same act that Shepherd used to call the House caucus together to remove Gates from his seat.
Before joining the legislature, Gates also served on the Garland County Quorum Court from 1994 to 2014. He is also a past chairman of Garland County Republican Party and chairman of Garland County Young Republicans.