Ingham judge rebuts Courser lawyer’s misconduct claims

Michael Gerstein
The Detroit News

Lansing — A judge who withdrew Monday from former state Rep. Todd Courser’s perjury trial said Tuesday he may retire in part because of the headaches in dealing with Courser and his lawyer.

Ingham County Circuit Judge William Collette, 72, said he “disqualified” himself from the trial because he no longer believes he can be impartial. Collette said he made the decision after learning that the Lapeer-area Republican’s lawyer, Matthew DePerno, sent a letter to Ingham County Circuit chief Judge Janelle Lawless that he said is brimming with falsehoods.

DePerno sent a letter to Lawless a week ago that accused the judge and two Michigan assistant attorneys general of ethical misconduct. DePerno alleges that Collette met with the two attorneys to talk about the case without him and that Collette verbally abused him and Courser’s mother during pretrial proceedings.

Collette said he did meet with the two lawyers, but not to discuss Courser’s case. He said he has never engaged in such “ex parte” or one-sided communications with anyone during his judicial career.

The judge added that he did not verbally abuse Courser or his mother and suggested DePerno may been maneuvering to get another judge to delay the trial date, which was scheduled for May 22.

“These people, they make it up as they go. I’ve never seen anything like it,” Collette said. “It was fairly obvious that I was not going to be impartial anymore. And I thought Mr. Courser deserved a different judge.

“It doesn’t matter what you say: He says you’re not telling the truth,” the judge said of DePerno.

Lawless on Monday issued the “order of disqualification” and reassigned the case to Ingham Circuit Judge James Jamo. Collette previously rejected DePerno’s motions to withdraw from the case.

Courser is accused of lying under oath during a legislative hearing about misconduct and misuse of state resources related to his attempt to cover up an extramarital affair with former state Rep. Cindy Gamrat, R-Plainwell. Courser resigned about an hour before Gamrat was expelled in the early morning hours of Sept. 11, 2015.

Audio recordings published by The Detroit News showed Courser asking a staffer to help him send a “false flag” email in which the legislator accused himself of having sex with a male prostitute, an apparent attempt to distract from the truth. The staffer declined and was later fired.

After 39 years on the bench, Collette said he may retire before his term ends in 2020 because Courser, DePerno and other lawyers are “starting to eat away at me.”

Collette attributed his ambivalence in part to the increased combativeness of lawyers.

“You know honestly … what I have seen the last several years is a different philosophy among any number of attorneys that come in here,” he said. “The combative nature. There used to be camaraderie among lawyers … a man’s word, a woman’s word, was their bond. A lot of that has disappeared.

“One day I feel like I may want to jump off a window and other days I feel like, ‘This is OK,’ ” he said with a laugh.

Collette said he is now looking forward to spending more time with his family during retirement. He said he has no firm retirement date set, adding it may depend on whether he likes whom voters elect in November 2018 as governor, who would appoint Collette’s replacement.

“I really don’t want to give Snyder an appointment unless I have to,” Collette said of the Republican governor, adding that he likes both Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, a Republican who is considering a run for governor, and Gretchen Whitmer, an announced Democratic candidate for governor and former state lawmaker.