Embattled Michigan lawmaker tries to avoid expulsion

AP News
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Posted: Sep 09, 2015 12:06 PM
Embattled Michigan lawmaker tries to avoid expulsion

LANSING, Mich. (AP) — An embattled Michigan lawmaker who tried to cover up his extramarital affair with another socially conservative legislator is set to defend himself before a House panel considering a recommendation that he be expelled.

Republican Rep. Todd Courser is expected to testify Wednesday before the special six-member committee weighing the recommendation from the chamber's top lawyer that he be kicked out. Courser instead is seeking a censure, which would limit his work but let him stay in the position.

In a letter to the group a day earlier, Courser apologized for arranging to have an "outlandish" email sent to GOP activists and others that falsely claimed he was having sex with a male prostitute. Courser, of Lapeer in Michigan's Thumb region, has said the tale was an effort to make his affair with Republican Rep. Cindy Gamrat less believable if it were exposed by an anonymous blackmailer who was sending them both text messages demanding that he resign.

State police are investigating the alleged blackmail. Courser, 43, and Gamrat, 42, have both refused calls to resign.

Asking for a chance to "redeem myself in the public eye," Courser offered in his letter to reimburse taxpayers for the misuse of public resources outlined in a House Business Office investigation.

At the onset of Wednesday's hearing, the GOP-led panel sparred over Democrats' line of questioning for Norm Saari, who was Speaker Kevin Cotter's chief of staff until July, shortly after two aides who worked for Courser and Gamrat were fired. Democrats said the inquiry is relevant to learn why they were dismissed; Republicans cut off the questions and then struck Saari's testimony from the record.

Courser's testimony will come a day after Brock Swartzle, general counsel for the Republican-led House and chief of staff to the speaker, said Courser should be expelled in part because he had shown "little true remorse," instead writing "mini-manifestos" on social media to deflect blame. Swartzle said a censure would be appropriate for Gamrat, whom he described as contrite and more of an accomplice in the "bizarre" cover-up attempt.

"Under any standard of appropriate behavior, Rep. Courser has failed in miserable and spectacular fashion," Swartzle told the House committee.

The panel, which released an 833-page investigative file, will make a disciplinary recommendation to the 109-member House. A censure — more serious than a reprimand — would allow the House to take away committee assignments, staff and possibly levy a fine. Only three lawmakers have been expelled from the Michigan Legislature.

After one of the staffers for Courser and Gamrat was fired, he gave The Detroit News a secret audio recording of Courser demanding that he send the email to "inoculate the herd," an apparent reference to Courser's supporters. While the email was likely legal, the plot was unethical and showed a "callous lack of respect" to the public, according to the House Business Office probe.

The panel listened to the lengthy recording Wednesday, in which Courser discussed his marital problems, the blackmail and his reasoning for orchestrating the email. The reluctant aide, Ben Graham, told him "this isn't going to work."

Gamrat on Tuesday admitted to official misconduct, misuse of public resources and asked the committee for a censure.

She tearfully read a statement to the committee apologizing and, in a reversal, acknowledging that she discussed the email with Courser while not knowing in advance the "specific and offensive" things in it. Asked by a panel member if she could still be an effective lawmaker, Gamrat said "a lot of healing ... needs to be done," but it should be left to voters to decide.

She and her 18-year-old son later met with dozens of angry constituents at the tiny Fennville City Hall in southwestern Michigan for the first time since the scandal broke more than a month ago.

"We've been betrayed," John Pearch of Fennville told Gamrat, of Plainwell. "You're a distraction. ... This is brutal to your family. You need to fix the home first before you can help us."

Donna White of Casco Township called it selfish for Gamrat to accept her nearly $72,000 annual salary because the district essentially has no representation given her diminished role, which likely would continue under a censure.

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Follow David Eggert on Twitter: https://twitter.com/DavidEggert00

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Online:

Full House Business Office investigative file: http://1.usa.gov/1Qndgri