Recordings: State rep asked aide to hide relationship

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — State Rep. Todd Courser planned the distribution of a fictional email alleging he had sex with a male prostitute in a bid to conceal his relationship with Rep. Cindy Gamrat, according to audio recordings obtained by The Detroit News.

State representatives Todd Courser, R-Lapeer, and Cindy Gamrat, R-Plainwell, wanted their aides to help cover up their personal relationship.

Courser, a Lapeer Republican, said on one recording 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 show freshman lawmakers Courser and Gamrat, R-Plainwell, used their taxpayer-funded offices to maintain and cover up their relationship. Courser, 43, and Gamrat, 42, rose from the ranks of tea party activism, battled establishment Republicans to win seats in the House last year and formed their own legislative coalition.

A now-former House aide recorded Courser in mid-May directing him to send Republican activists and operatives an email that would appear to be from an anonymous political enemy that said Courser had been “caught behind a Lansing nightclub” having sex with a man.

After House aide Ben Graham rejected Courser’s May 19 request to take a sick day on May 20 and send the mass email to Republicans across Michigan, he says he had duties removed in subsequent weeks. By early July, Courser fired Graham and Gamrat ended the employment of her aide, Keith Allard — about a month after giving them both pay raises — without explanation.

During the May 19 meeting, Courser instructed Graham to send rank-and-file Republicans across Michigan what he called “an over-the-top story that’s obscene about me.” It was designed, Courser said on the recording, to “inoculate the herd” — an apparent reference to Courser and Gamrat’s followers in the tea party movement.

“It will make anything else that comes out after that — that isn’t a video — mundane, tame by comparison,” Courser, a married father of four, told Graham.

“I need a controlled burn,” said the lawmaker, who used the term three times during the meeting.

During two meetings recorded by Graham, Courser and Gamrat, who is also married and has three children, did not dispute the aide’s characterization of their relationship as an extramarital affair. They acknowledged the aide’s discomfort but neither directly confirmed nor denied having a sexual relationship.

Courser and Gamrat both declined to comment about whether the dismissals of Graham and Allard were related to their unwillingness to help hide their relationship.

“I’m not going to talk about any kind of staff-related issues,” Gamrat said in a telephone interview Monday.

On Monday morning, Courser told a Detroit News reporter and photographer to leave his Lapeer law office after being asked whether he wrote the email to get ahead of revelations of an affair.

Courser initially declined to hear the recording, but confirmed “that’s my voice” as a Detroit News reporter played the recording in his office lobby. He then disputed the legality of the recording.

“I’m not commenting on what happened in my office between Ben (Graham) and I inside here,” Courser said. “... I don’t have any comment at all.”

Socially conservative legislators

The pair are socially conservative legislators who often invoke their Christian faith in pursuit of new legislation governing gun rights, abortion and marriage. Their political alliance dates back to Courser’s unsuccessful 2013 race for Michigan Republican Party chairman when Gamrat ran as his vice chairwoman.

Rep. Cindy Gamrat, R-Plainwell, talks with Rep Todd Courser, R-Lapeer, on the first day of the Legislature’s new session in January. The two lawmakers, in an unusual arrangement, combined their office operations, with three aides effectively working for both of them.

But since being sworn into office in January, the self-described tea party “gladiators” have fought with Republican leaders. In an unusual move, Courser and Gamrat wrote a “liberty response” to Republican Gov. Rick Snyder’s State of the State address in January — the kind of retort that typically comes from Democrats.

In April, House Speaker Kevin Cotter kicked Gamrat out of Republican caucus meetings after she was caught leaking confidential discussions among GOP members. In one of his lengthy emails to people involved in Michigan politics, Courser called the House speaker a “bully” who was waging a “witch hunt” and who was “dead set against (Gamrat’s) efforts to advance liberty and freedom.”

In an unusual arrangement, Courser and Gamrat combined their office operations, having three aides effectively work for both of them.

Graham, Allard and former aide Joshua Cline said they internally opposed the relationship between Courser and Gamrat and how it complicated the operations of their jointly run House office.

“Everything in the office was done and intertwined around their relationship — from time management to who’s going to get what bills,” said Cline, a former legislative director who quit working for Courser and Gamrat in April after he said he confronted them about their relationship and “unprofessional” office behavior.

‘This is a crazy way’

Graham and Allard said their House work situation began rapidly deteriorating after Courser called Graham to his Lapeer law office at 10:30 p.m. on May 19 with an alarming request to “destroy me.”

Not knowing whether Courser would become volatile, Graham said he recorded the 90-minute conversation without his boss’ knowledge. He subsequently provided an audio copy to The News.

A Michigan Court of Appeals ruling says participants in a conversation may record a discussion without getting the permission of other participants. “A recording made by a participant is nothing more than a more accurate record of what was said,” the court decided in a 1982 case.

During the meeting, Courser said earlier in the day, after the House adjourned, he and Gamrat received identical text messages from an unknown phone number with a message about their relationship.

At several points, the House aide can be heard on tape advising Courser against distributing the email and urging him to acknowledge the relationship with Gamrat.

“This is a crazy way to deal with this situation,” Graham told Courser on May 19. “Normally, people just like front it off, head it off themselves and say ‘Hey, this happened’ or quietly resign and go away.”

Written using the pseudonym George Rathburn, the sexually explicit email was received by Republicans on May 20 and 21, the two days following Courser’s meeting with Graham. The missive claimed Courser was removed from the House GOP caucus after being caught having “paid male on male sex behind a prominent Lansing night club,” among other claims.

During the May 19 meeting, Courser twice read aloud portions of a draft email to Graham. Most of the sentences Courser recited match copies of the email sent to Republicans and obtained by The News.

“Nobody’s gonna believe any of that,” Graham said about the draft email.

“Correct,” said Courser, who then added: “No, they’ll believe some of it. They’ll believe some of it.”

Courser does not explicitly say he wrote the letter, only telling Graham “it’s already written” and that Gamrat “agreed” with sending it.

“It’s what they won’t expect,” Courser said. “At that point, if they don’t have some really, really, really offensive stuff ... it will be tough for them to bring it after this.”

The mass email calls Gamrat “a tramp” and claims she “has covered” for Courser “and her involvement is the real reason she was thrown out” of the House Republican caucus in April.

“In a controlled burn, you do a little bit of truth mixed in with a lot of lies,” Courser explained to Graham.

At one point, a cellphone began ringing and Courser identified the caller as Gamrat. The recording picked up Courser’s end of the conversation.

“Ben and I are sitting here,” Courser said. “He’s trying to, trying to mentally process everything I just told him.”

During the meeting, Courser wonders aloud whether someone has pictures, video or audio recordings of him and Gamrat.

Aide refuses request

Courser also told Graham to claim he was sick the next day — a Wednesday — after sending the email. “You’re going to do this and then go home,” Courser told the state employee.

Graham asked Courser for time to think about the assignment of sending the email. The meeting ended at about midnight and he left the law office, Graham said. An hour later, Courser asked for an answer in a text message to Graham, which he released to The News.

“If you see another way then let me know,” Courser wrote. “But if I can keep this from blowing all to hell, then I would like to give it a shot.”

Graham replied by text that he wouldn’t participate in a “cover-up” and urged his boss to resign from office.

“This kind of stuff never stays hidden. It’s going to blow up, and I can’t help cover it up,” Graham wrote. “... My best advice, consider resigning. You may be able to protect Cindy and her family and your family.”

In a reply, Courser said he didn’t plan to resign “at this point.”

“If they have something, I think a crucifixion is in order,” the lawmaker wrote in a text.

It’s unclear who ultimately sent the email. But during the meeting, Courser said he has someone who does “this sort of thing” for him using “gmail accounts.” The email came from a address.

Staffer recorded meeting

Graham, a Lapeer native who worked on Courser’s past campaigns for office and helped him build a political machine, said he took a vacation day the next day after rejecting the order to send the email and claim to be sick. On the following day, May 21, Graham recorded another meeting in Gamrat’s House office in Lansing with both representatives present. Courser told Graham he wanted to “chat” about what took place two nights prior at his Lapeer office.

Courser and Gamrat can be heard apologizing to their 25-year-old aide, who made direct comments that they “are having an affair.”

“How long has this been going on?” Graham asks on the recording. “A year? Two years?”

“No, I mean, I don’t want to go through the circumstance of how that developed,” Courser replied.

Graham then quizzed his bosses on when the relationship developed since the pair ran for state GOP leadership positions in 2013.

“It wasn’t back to the beginning and it wasn’t yesterday,” said Courser, later adding “some things happened and shouldn’t have happened.”

At one point, Gamrat urged Graham to keep quiet about “a mistake that we made.”

“I would ask you to just keep this private. This is not just about protecting me, it’s also about protecting Joe and the kids,” Gamrat said.

Graham repeatedly tries to steer the discussion back to legislative matters and reminds Courser he’s late for a committee meeting. Courser was absent that day from a House Military and Veterans Affairs Committee meeting, committee records show.

In the following weeks, Courser and Gamrat relieved Graham of his duties, including his main job speaking to their constituents, Graham and Allard told The News.

On July 7, Courser and Gamrat terminated the employment of Graham and Allard, said Tim Bowlin, chief financial officer for the House business office.

Office staff for individual House members are at-will employees and the reason for the firings doesn’t have to be given, Bowlin said.

But the dismissals occurred several weeks after Courser and Gamrat gave Allard and Graham each 6 percent pay raises, the maximum salary increase allowed, according to House payroll records.

Aides worked for both reps

House members from neighboring districts or urban areas like Detroit sometimes share an employee for budgetary reasons, Bowlin said. But Courser and Gamrat’s House districts are nearly 130 miles apart on different sides of the state; Gamrat represents the 80th District in west Michigan’s Allegan County, while Courser represents the 82nd District in Lapeer County.

“In the past, when it’s happened, it’s usually happened in districts that share a county or share proximity,” Bowlin said.

Cline, the former aide who quit in April, said the joint office was devised to give Courser and Gamrat more legislative muscle.

But within weeks of taking office, Cline said “everything was merged.” Courser and Gamrat began sitting in on meetings with constituents and lobbyists who wanted to meet with just one of them, he said.

“It didn’t matter if it was inside the office or outside the office, all meetings were held together,” Cline said.

Courser and Gamrat would demand that no meetings be scheduled on Thursday afternoons after the House adjourned for the week and most representatives were driving home to their districts, Cline said.

The pair would frequently leave the office together for several hours on Thursday afternoons, asking the staff to stay in Lansing until they returned to the office for evening staff meetings that sometimes stretched on for hours, he said.

“It measurably affected the time management of the office, the efficiency of the office and constituent services,” Cline said.

Battle with Cotter

During the May 19 recorded meeting, Courser speculated that Republican leaders may have been behind the anonymous text messages he and Gamrat received about their relationship.

“The speaker, he’s got a wound in his side,” Courser told Graham. “They want something from us. They want us dead.”

In the meeting, Courser also told Graham he desired news reports about the email to inflame his on-going battle with Cotter.

“This is the best we came up with. Neither one of us want to be on somebody’s leash,” Courser later told Graham. “Neither one of us really want to be in Lansing if this is how we have to do it.”

“You could just quit, you know,” Graham suggested.

After a long audible pause, Courser replied: “I might have to.”

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