LANSING, Mich. (AP) — An aide testified Wednesday that a former Michigan lawmaker asked him to send an outlandishly false, sexually explicit email to thousands of fellow Republicans as a ruse so his extramarital affair with another legislator would not be believed if it became public, but the staffer refused because he thought it was unethical and possibly illegal.
Benjamin Graham said he secretly recorded the meeting with then-Rep. Todd Courser in May 2015 because he feared for his safety and Courser's safety after the stressed-out legislator left him a voicemail one night asking to help him "destroy" himself.
"It was a very uncomfortable situation. I felt trapped there" in Courser's law office, Graham testified on the opening day of a preliminary examination for tea party conservatives Courser and ex-Rep. Cindy Gamrat.
The proceeding will determine if there is probable cause for them to face trial on felony charges of misconduct in office stemming from a legislative investigation into the cover-up of their affair.
The state attorney general's office accused them of lying during a House Business Office probe and having staff in their combined office forge their signatures on bills ready for introduction. Courser, who is accused of soliciting Graham to send the bogus email, also faces a perjury charge from his testimony to a panel of legislators who recommended the duo's expulsion.
Gamrat, 42, was expelled from office in September — an extremely rare occurrence — while Courser, 43, resigned rather than be kicked out.
Courser has admitted to devising the email that said he had been caught having sex with a male prostitute behind a nightclub in Michigan's capital city, in an attempt to make his real affair with Gamrat less plausible if it was revealed publicly by an extortionist — who turned out to be Gamrat's husband, according to a later state police investigation. One of Courser's friends, Immanuel "Ike" Eickholdt, testified Wednesday that he sent the email at Courser's request despite having concerns.
"He kind of wanted to basically burn himself down," Eickholdt said. "He was under a lot of duress about the things he was encountering and very stressed out."
It was supposed to go to 47,000 people in Courser's political database, but Eickholdt said he sent it to fewer than 10 percent after receiving an angry email back from one of the recipients about its contents.
Courser has said he wrote the email in part to try to flush out whoever was threatening him.
The email "had nothing to do with his job as a legislator," his attorney Matthew Deperno told reporters after the hearing. "The misconduct (charge) requires an act while ... performing his duties in office."
Graham was fired in July along with another aide who took the stand Wednesday, Keith Allard. Graham gave the audio recording to The Detroit News — which broke the scandal in August.
"I felt that the recording and the issues discussed in it disqualified Representative Courser from being a representative of the people, and I felt the people should know about it," Graham said.
Gamrat's lawyer, Mike Nichols, said the recording is inadmissible as evidence because Allard illegally advised Graham to record the meeting.
"This was an ill-gotten tape recording because ... directing somebody to tape record a conversation in which you're not a participant — that's eavesdropping," he said.
Before the probable cause hearing began Wednesday, the former lawmakers testified that they admitted to misconduct before the House committee but with the understanding they would receive a censure and not face criminal prosecution. Their attorneys are trying to have that evidence tossed as a result.
Lansing District Judge Hugh Clarke Jr. is expected to rule later on whether their legislative testimony is admissible, including the recording and other evidence. The examination will continue Thursday, when current House officials will be questioned.
If convicted, Courser faces up to 15 years in prison. Gamrat faces up to 5 years in prison.
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