Macomb Co. moves to oust clerk over residency
Macomb County wants a judge to decide whether controversial County Clerk/Register of Deeds Karen Spranger should be removed from office over claims she falsified her residency in paperwork filed in her bid for public office.
The county on Tuesday filed a motion over an April 2016 affidavit by Spranger in which she swore under oath that her residence was on Hudson Avenue in Warren.
The county, in its filing, notes there is “strong evidence” that Spranger “made a false statement” on her affidavit when indicating she resided at the Warren home.
According to the county’s court filing, which cites city of Warren records, the property has been “uninhabitable” since 2012 due to lack of utilities, including water. Since that time, the property has deteriorated and it has been cited for nuisance by the city of Warren.
“The basic goal is to decide the issue: Did she or didn’t she (falsify the affidavit). If she didn’t, then she remains in office. If she did, she can’t remain in office,” said Macomb County Corporation Counsel John Schapka. “One way or the other, it will get rid of the distraction. It’s way beyond just negativity or inconvenience. It’s bordering on chaos right now.”
Spranger, a Republican who was elected as clerk in November, has been a lightning rod for controversy in the county ever since, battling officials over how she handles her office.
Spranger acquired the Hudson property from her mother’s estate by quit claim deed in 2013. She then had issues with Warren regarding the principal residence exemption on the property, which led to a Michigan Court of Appeals opinion. The court found in 2015 that Spranger was not qualified for a principal residence exemption since she did not reside at the premises, according to the county’s filing Tuesday. The court noted limited water usage and that the water had been shut off in fall 2012.
The Appeals Court also found that Spranger lacked credibility as she filed an affidavit for the principal residence exemption claiming she lived at the property since 2001, but registered to vote and voted from a Clinton Township address through July 2011.
The state Court of Appeals in a separate opinion last year denied a claim from Spranger for a poverty exemption, which found the prior opinion established she did not reside on Hudson.
Warren city records show there was no water usage at the property during 2016. The address is listed for Spranger’s campaign committee.
On Tuesday, at the house on Hudson where Spranger claims to live, moss was growing on the worn green-carpeted front steps, and pots on the porch sat empty. A welcome mat marked the door, which had two notices taped to the glass. One was dated July 18 and declared that the dwelling needed certification.
The motion on Tuesday from the county serves as a counter claim to a lawsuit Spranger filed against the county five weeks ago.
Her June 22 suit, targeting County Executive Mark Hackel, the county’s Board of Commissioners and its ethics board, was filed in an effort to have the “no firearm zone” status removed from the two buildings that house her county offices.
Within the seven-count filing, Spranger also was seeking an injunction related to perceived wrongs by county officials against her.
The county discovered evidence suggesting the false residency during its investigation of Spranger’s lawsuit.
The county motion, if permitted by the court, will have the judge decide whether Spranger is lawfully occupying the office. A hearing is set for Aug. 14 before Macomb Circuit Judge Kathryn Viviano.
Ultimately, the judge would make a factual determination as to whether Spranger lived at the Hudson address in Warren on the day that she filled out the paperwork. If not, the falsification is sufficient grounds to remove her from office, Schapka said.
“All of the evidence establishes that she did not live at that address on that given date,” he said. “Living in the county is not good enough. You have to live at the residence where you represent you live.”
If there is a removal, it would likely be immediate, Schapka added. By statute, if a removal takes place the majority of the county’s circuit judges would then vote to choose Spranger’s successor to serve out the remainder of her term.
The move is the latest blow for Spranger, who has been clashing with county leaders since taking office in January.
Hackel said Tuesday the county has “compelling evidence” that shows Spranger did not live at the Warren home when she filed for office, as she claims.
“The proof is pretty straightforward and pretty strong that she doesn’t meet that standard of residency. But she’s going to have to somehow refute that,” he said. “You can’t just say you live somewhere without living there.”
The county initially asked the state Attorney General's Office to determine whether Spranger was qualified to hold her position, but in a July letter, Bill Schuette’s office said it involved a local office and would best be resolved at the county level.
Spranger was not available for comment Tuesday. No one answered at the Hudson home or a home in Clinton Township that is listed in public records as her residence. The township neighborhood is filled with mostly well-kept brick ranch homes.
Her attorney, Frank Cusumano Jr., has said Spranger also listed the Hudson address as her home when she ran for mayor in Warren in 2012.
He said Spranger maintains it is her residence but “doesn’t necessarily stay there every night.”
“We think this is another attempt to fire her,” said Cusumano, adding that’s her address “according to the law. Everything is going to that location, that address, her residence and they are saying ‘we don’t think she spends enough time there.’ ”
Cusumano said he agrees it’s best to get the matter decided by the court. “I think it’s just part of another device or weapon that’s being used in order to undermine her and to stymie and paralyze her from enacting the reforms she wants to enact in the clerk’s office,” he said.
“We hope the people will let it go through the processes in the court and get to the bottom of all of this rather than judging Karen Spranger. We think it’s a never-ending drum beat to recall her or have her removed from office.”
Macomb County Sheriff Anthony Wickersham’s office is investigating a complaint filed with the department last week regarding questions over Spranger’s residency. If police investigators determine there’s merit to the allegations, the information will be forwarded to the county prosecutor and Spranger could be charged with a felony, punishable by up to five years in prison.
Hackel contends the county is dealing with another “lack of compliance” from Spranger with her office’s operating budget. Despite repeated requests for documentation, it has not been forthcoming, he said.
She’s the only official countywide who has “not submitted or even attempted to have conversations” to prepare a budget, he said.
“We set up half a dozen meetings she didn’t show up at,” he said.
The deadline to prepare her portion of the budget was June 23. As a result, Hackel said, the county’s Finance Department is going to prepare it. “All other countywide elected officials and departments are totally engaged in the process,” he said. “She has been reached out to and it’s been attempted a lot of times. With that being said, I can’t ignore it. This is a concern. It’s very unusual.”
Cusumano countered Spranger did submit a budget. She asked for an audit of certain expenditures and “they didn’t cooperate with that.”
“It’s the blame game again,” he said. “Who is at fault?”
Tuesday’s action by the county comes after Cusumano asserted Friday that she’s the target of a “smear campaign,” including the allegation that she perjured herself by falsely claiming a residence in Warren.
Cusumano has argued the residency issue only surfaced last week after he wrote a letter to Schuette seeking an independent investigation into Spranger being denied access to county records warehoused in a building in Clinton Township.
Spranger won a surprise victory over Democrat Fred Miller for the post last November.
Detroit News Staff Writer Mark Hicks contributed.