Detroit News receives $20,000 in settlement with ex-Rep. Courser, lawyer

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Former Republican Lapeer area state Rep. Todd Courser and his lawyer agreed on Monday to pay The Detroit News $20,000 in a settlement agreement that concludes a nearly three-year defamation lawsuit.  

Under the agreement, the DePerno Law Office, which represented Courser, agreed to pay $20,000 via a wire transfer to The News by 5 p.m. Monday. 

The agreement came about two years after Washtenaw County Circuit Judge Timothy Connors dismissed the defamation lawsuit against The News and ordered Courser and DePerno to pay $79,701.63 in sanctions related to the suit. Courser and Matthew DePerno had appealed to the Michigan Court of Appeals, where arguments were set to take place Tuesday.

Former Michigan state Rep. Todd Courser, pictured here in 2016, and his attorney agreed to pay $20,000 to The Detroit News to settle a lawsuit he filed against the news organization and which had been dismissed by a Washtenaw County judge.

The News sued DePerno's wife, Laura DePerno, and her trust in Kalamazoo County court in an attempt to collect on the sanctions, arguing a fraudulent transfer of funds had been made to avoid collection, according to the settlement agreement.

The $20,000 settlement entered Monday required The News to file a satisfaction of judgment in the Washtenaw County case and a dismissal with prejudice in the fraudulent transfer suit in Kalamazoo County. Courser and DePerno in turn dismissed their appeal in the Court of Appeals.

Detroit News Publisher and Editor Gary Miles said The News warned Courser and his attorney that the news organization "would not only prevail, but would seek sanctions." 

But Courser "fought and lost at every juncture," he said. 

The settlement "sends a message that frivolous lawsuits against news organizations for performing their duties under the First Amendment will not be taken lightly," Miles said. The news organization intends to donate the recovered fees to the Rosa Parks Scholarship Foundation, he said.

Courser "had a strong case on appeal" but wanted to "move on" after five years of litigation related to the August 2015 Detroit News article regarding his attempted cover-up of an affair with a fellow lawmaker, DePerno said. DePerno said he was "obligated to reach a deal."

"The Detroit News wanted to wrap me and my family up in this matter and cause us injury," DePerno said in a Wednesday statement. "That is sad and petty. We requested confidentiality, but The Detroit News refused because they want to continue to damage people and families."

Courser filed the 2018 defamation suit against The News and former reporter Chad Livengood and alleged that audio recordings featured in the 2015 article about the lawmaker were edited. 

In the recordings, Courser urged House aide Ben Graham to distribute a fictional email alleging he had sex with a male prostitute in a bid to conceal his actual relationship with fellow Republican Rep. Cindy Gamrat of West Michigan.

In one audio recording, Courser said the email was designed to create “a complete smear campaign” of exaggerated, false claims about him and Gamrat so a public revelation about the legislators’ relationship would seem “mild by comparison.”

Interviews with former House employees and the recordings showed Courser and Gamrat used their taxpayer-funded offices to maintain and cover up their relationship. They had risen from the ranks of tea party activism, battled establishment Republicans to win House seats and formed their own legislative coalition.

Republican House leaders ordered an investigation, and the two lawmakers were accused of using state resources to cover up their affair. Courser resigned from the Michigan House Sept. 11, 2015, to avoid a likely expulsion, while Gamrat was expelled by her peers an hour later.

Republican former Attorney General Bill Schuette filed criminal charges against Courser and Gamrat in February 2016. An Ingham County judge dismissed the charges against Gamrat in June of that year.

In 2019, Courser was sentenced to 12 months of probation and 90 hours of community service after pleading no contest in Lapeer County to a misdemeanor criminal charge of willful neglect of duty by a public officer.

Courser's related 2016 federal lawsuit against the Michigan House and several lawmakers was dismissed by a federal judge and the Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. The appeals panel said Courser spent "more time  enumerating claims than developing arguments."