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Legal woes mount for embattled Macomb Co. clerk

Charles E. Ramirez
The Detroit News

There's more legal action mounting against controversial Macomb County Clerk Karen Spranger.

Karen Spranger

Among the issues are a backlog of court cases, alleged retaliation against employees and multiple lawsuits filed back and forth between her and the county. 

The latest issue involves a request filed by county officials with the Macomb County Circuit Court for mandamus relief against Spranger, which means the county wants to compel her to perform her duties. 

"The county filed a mandamus action addressing issues arising out of issues the Sheriff's Office, the Treasurer's Office and the court itself (are having with the county clerk's office),"John Schapka, corporation counsel for Macomb County, said Tuesday. "We filed it yesterday." 

Spranger’s attorney, Frank Cusumano, said Tuesday that his client is not happy the judge has allowed the county’s counterclaim to proceed.

He said, however, she looks forward to her day in court. “She is demanding a jury trial on it,” Cusumano said. “And she’ll be vindicated.”

He said Spranger is paying for her legal defense from her own pocket. “She’s having to self-finance (the defense) of all of the county’s actions against her.”

He said the unions who represent her employees, the UAW and AFCSME, have taken over her office.

“The UAW plays the fiddle and AFSCME beats the drum,” he said. “They control the county and have used their allies, the elected officials, to seize control of that office.”

Cusumano said as long as they are around, the county’s taxpayers will continue to foot the bill for the high wages and benefits of the workers in her office.

Instead, those things are being blamed on Spranger’s supposed mismanagement and ineptitude, he said.

Cusumano said she’s a target because she’s not a member of the club of powerful Democrats that have long held sway over the county.

“She’s not part of this whole cabal that exists,” she said. “She’s the outsider looking in.”

The matter will be heard by a St. Clair County Circuit Court judge to avoid a conflict of interest, because the Macomb court is one of the parties requesting relief, Schapka said. It's not clear when the judge will rule on the matter. 

Also Monday, St. Clair County Circuit Court Judge David Kelly ruled the county's counterclaim against Spranger may proceed in court, Schapka said.

"(We're) challenging the legal authority (for her) to hold office," he said. "That was what was allowed to go forward."

The county filed a counterclaim on Aug. 1, seeking to remove Spranger from office because she allegedly falsified her residency in paperwork filed in her bid for public office.

"If she falsified the filing, then she couldn't run for office," Schapka said. "If she couldn't run for office, then she couldn't get elected and if she couldn't get elected, then she couldn't hold office."

He said it's not clear when another hearing on the counterclaim case will be held, but Spranger is scheduled to give him a deposition on Friday.

A series of woes

That's all just the latest in a series of woes for Spranger.

At 9 a.m. Wednesday, she is scheduled to appear in Macomb County Circuit Court before Judge Richard Caretti for a hearing to determine whether she violated a court order issued last month that forbids her from retaliating against or harassing her employees who belong to a union.

On Thursday, Spranger is scheduled to appear before the Macomb County Board of Commissioners to give a report on her offices' budget during the body's regularly scheduled 3 p.m. full board meeting, officials said. 

In June, Spranger sued Macomb County to have the “no firearm zone” status removed from the two buildings that house her county offices. She’s also seeking redress and an injunction against perceived wrongs by county officials against her. She claims Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel and other county officials are interfering with her management of her office. 

Earlier this month, Macomb County Circuit Court chief judge James Biernat told  Spranger to immediately address a growing backlog of filings and processing.

Schapka said the backlog has gotten worse since then.

"It's beyond baffling," he said. "The backlog has increased."

Because Spranger's office is behind on fillings needed by the courts and law enforcement agencies, Schapka said it's not inconceivable someone who had a warrant out for his arrest and went to court to take care of it could be jailed because the clerk's office failed to remove it from the database.

Clashing with the county

A Republican who has never held political office, Spranger upset Democratic candidate Fred Miller, a former state representative and county commissioner, to win her post in the November 2016 election. Spranger earns $108,880 a year as Macomb County's Clerk and Register of Deeds.

Since taking office, she has been embroiled in a series of political fights.

After three months on the job, she fired her deputy clerk and another at-will employee and was subsequently sued.

She has clashed with the county workers' union over work rules for 85 employees she supervises and came under fire when she attempted to block the moving of her offices and workers into another building — a plan which had been in the works for months prior to her election. Her spat with the county over the move prompted it to file a lawsuit against her that was eventually settled. 

Spranger also was fined by the county Ethics Committee for violating provisions of the use of the county computer system by non-county workers.

Hours after the fined was leveled against her, Roseville police cited Spranger for a crash involving her county-issued vehicle. Police said Spranger rear-ended another car stopped at an intersection.