Michigan House settles with fired Courser, Gamrat aides

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

The Michigan House of Representatives reached a settlement with aides to former Reps. Todd Courser and Cindy Gamrat who sued on claims the legislators fired them for refusing to help cover up their extramarital affair and alleged misconduct.

An order issued last week by U.S. District Judge Gordon J. Quist shows plaintiffs Keith Allard and Ben Graham reached a settlement with the House on Monday. Quist stipulated dismissal papers must be filed by Nov. 14.

Terms of the settlement were not immediately known. Allard and Graham were seeking unspecified damages for lost wages and other purported harm.

Gideon D’Assandro, a spokesman for House Speaker Kevin Cotter, referred all questions to attorney Kathryn Wood of the Dickinson Wright law firm, who represented the House in the case.

Wood said she had no comment Sunday when reached by email. An attorney for the plaintiffs, Sarah Riley Howard, confirmed in a text message that the case had been settled but said she could not discuss the terms.

Allard and Graham filed their whistleblower lawsuit in Grand Rapids federal court in December, claiming Courser and Gamrat fired them for reporting “unethical and illegal” actions to Cotter’s then-chief of staff and majority counsel. The House did not protect them from the retaliation firing, according to their complaint.

Cotter, R-Mount Pleasant, initially called the suit “wholly without merit” and said the firings were justified because they were “substandard staffers” who had sent rude and disparaging emails about colleagues and supervisors.

Courser resigned and Gamrat was expelled in September 2015 over allegations the tea party Republicans misused taxpayer resources to hide their affair.

Their forced removal came little more than a month after The Detroit News first published explosive recordings of Courser asking Graham to help him send a “false flag” email accusing Courser of having sex with a male prostitute behind a prominent Lansing nightclub, an apparent attempt to discredit rumors of his affair with Gamrat.

Allard and Graham’s suit said they met with top Cotter aides on multiple occasions to report allegations of misconduct by Courser and Gamrat, beginning with a February 2015 meeting with then-chief of staff Norm Saari.

They told Saari about “difficult-to-ignore” signs of the affair, said they were instructed to send political emails on state time and were forced to work extensive hours on nights and weekends, according to their lawsuit.

Two days after Courser asked him to send the “controlled burn” email, Graham met with Saari and House Majority Counsel Brock Swartzle off state property at the GCSI lobbying firm on May 21, 2015.

The lawsuit claims Graham “detailed” Courser’s request that he send the bizarre email, which he declined to do, and made clear he had “undeniable physical proof” of what he was telling them. Saari allegedly told him to “stick it out” while they would work to find him other employment.

Attorneys for the House confirmed the meeting but denied Graham “detailed” all events on the night Courser asked him to send the email. The court response also indicated that Graham’s audio recording was not provided to the House until after The News had published excerpts in August 2015.

Graham and Allard were fired in July by the House Business Office at Courser and Gamrat’s request.

Their suit sought unspecified economic and non-economic damages for lost wages along with the House’s publication of their Social Security numbers, which were included in an 833-page House Business Office report legislators used force Courser and Gamrat out of office.

The complaint alleged Allard and Graham were wrongfully terminated for exercising “their First Amendment rights to speak on matters of public concern.”

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette filed felony charges against Courser and Gamrat in February. Courser in June was ordered to stand trial on perjury and misconduct charges, but charges against Gamrat were dismissed.

Courser and Gamrat have filed separate lawsuits against the House and others, claiming they were inappropriately forced out of office. Courser’s September complaint alleges a conspiracy to discredit him and names 24 defendants, including Allard, Graham, Cotter, Schuette, state police and The News.