Judge ousts Macomb County clerk over residency

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

Mount Clemens — More than a year of political turmoil, court battles and even physical confrontations ended abruptly Tuesday when a judge ordered embattled Macomb County Clerk Karen Spranger removed from office.

Macomb County Clerk Karen Spranger.

St. Clair County Circuit Judge Daniel J. Kelly ruled Tuesday that Spranger, who had been accused of falsifying her address, did not meet the residency requirements to be the county’s clerk.

“Karen Spranger usurped the office of Macomb County Clerk/Register of Deeds,” Kelly wrote.

Spranger, 65, and a sister own a property at 7520 Hudson in Warren. But the judge noted that Spranger “claims to have resided in Macomb County but provides no documentary evidence to support that assertion.”

“She clearly did not reside at 7520 Hudson (in Warren), and yet she has not told this court where she actually ‘laid her head’ during the applicable time period,” Kelly wrote.

Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel said the county was notified of the judge’s order Tuesday afternoon and has begun revoking Spranger’s access to county property.

Hackel said circuit judges are meeting to decide who will temporarily replace Spranger, “hopefully, with a decision within the next day or two.”

“They are not going to make a hasty judgment, but they’re going to put somebody in that office at least temporarily to calm the issues and restore integrity to the office,” Hackel said during a press conference.

Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel announces that county clerk Karen Spranger has been removed from office by a judge.

“I have never seen such chaos and such disarray from a public official. It’s disappointing. ... We hope that staff finds relief, and we can work to get that award-winning title again.”

Kelly said Macomb County presented evidence that Spranger used her Bridge card to buy groceries only in western Wayne County from November 2015 to the end of 2016.

Macomb County Corporation Counsel John Schapka said the county found the house had no water or electricity or natural gas for several years. Property taxes were delinquent and mail — including citations from the city for blight violations — was returned from the address. Neighbors also said no one was living there.

Spranger, meanwhile, has maintained that regardless of whether the Hudson property had utilities, it was always her legal residence and that her driver’s license, voter registration and campaign committee all listed Hudson Avenue as her address.

But Kelly responded: “None of the evidence presented shows any indication that Spranger resided in Macomb County in the 30 days preceding the April 19, 2016, filing deadline. Because she did not reside in Macomb County, Spranger was not a qualified elector of Macomb County. ... Given that she was not a qualified elector of Macomb County, Spranger was not eligible to the office of county clerk. ... By law, if Spranger was not eligible to run for county clerk, she has no right to currently hold the office.”

The judge’s actions, ultimately, include “invalidating Karen Spranger’s election victory and removing her from office.”

The ruling comes more than a week after attorneys for Macomb County and Spranger faced off for about an hour before Kelly.

Spranger did not attend the hearing and in the past has referred questions to her attorney, Frank J. Cusumano Jr., who could not be immediately reached for comment Tuesday.

Cusumano has said his client frequently stayed elsewhere with friends but insisted she lived at the Warren address.

The Macomb County Board of Commissioners chairman said Tuesday that officials would not challenge the ruling.

“I’m confident the judge’s ruling is appropriate,” Chairman Bob Smith said. “The Board of Commissioners is ready to assist as appropriate or needed.”

Schapka said the county’s position has always been that Spranger “falsified and perjured herself” on an affidavit in which she listed a Warren home as her address on April 6, 2016, when she filed papers to run for elected office in Macomb County.

“Interestingly, she had a Bridge card which was used extensively in western Wayne County communities, including at a Kroger store,” Schapka said earlier this month. “Apparently there are no Krogers within a 50-mile radius of Warren.”

Schapka said Spranger stopped using the Bridge card when she began drawing an annual salary of more than $108,000 as county clerk.

Spranger, a Republican, won the November 2016 election by a narrow margin, defeating Democrat Fred Miller by 635 votes — 50.1 percent to 49.9 percent. Political observers credited her win in part to President Donald Trump’s popularity in Macomb County, which was seen as a national bellwether in the 2016 presidential race. She took office in January 2017.

The county’s suit was filed in St. Clair County after the entire Macomb County Circuit Court bench recused themselves from hearing it.

Since taking office a year ago, Spranger has been embroiled in a series of political fights with other officials and has clashed with the county workers’ union over rules for the 85 employees she supervises.

A lawsuit she filed against several county officials, a union president and two news reporters, alleging they colluded to prevent her from doing her job, is pending in federal court.

On Monday, Spranger also was involved in a confrontation with a county employee.

Spranger declined to comment on the matter. Her deputy clerk, Jackie Ryan, told media there was an incident but Spranger didn’t hurt or touch anyone.

Her comments came about an hour after the Macomb County Sheriff’s Office said it was investigating reports Spranger made inappropriate travel expenditures.

Candice Miller, director of the Macomb County public works department, said the St. Clair County judge made the right decision.

“As former secretary of state, I take election law very seriously, and I think going forward, this will send a message to people looking to file for candidacy will think twice about lying,” Miller said Tuesday. “She shouldn’t have been voted in. ... We are a nation of law, and the nation had a good day today.”