Courser blames actions on blackmail, defies calls to resign

Chad Livengood, Leonard N. Fleming, Gary Heinlein, and Karen Bouffard

In a mushrooming scandal, legislative leaders seized the computers of tea party politicians Todd Courser and Cindy Gamrat, as Courser — refusing to step down — acknowledged their affair Monday and claimed the two state representatives are the victims of a blackmail plot led by the GOP establishment.

Courser, R-Lapeer, said he distributed a “false flag” story purportedly from someone else accusing him of paying a male prostitute for sex to “expose” individuals trying to blackmail him into resigning over the relationship with Gamrat, R-Plainwell.

In his own taped comments distributed Monday, Courser claimed he was being targeted by political opponents within the mainstream GOP. Someone, he claimed, threatened by text message to reveal the relationship.

“I could have resigned; this is really the option that anonymous texter wanted, and doing so quietly,” Courser said. “I simply would have been submitting to the authority of the establishment machine and doing so to protect myself and protect my family.”

Gamrat has issued no public comment since The Detroit News published the tale of Courser’s email scheme Friday, but in a brief Facebook message and without explanation, she canceled Monday evening office hours in Lee Township.

While Courser claimed the salacious, phony email was an attempt to smoke out the identity of blackmailers, Ben Graham, a former aide who refused Courser’s request to disseminate it, said the intent was to draw attention from the two lawmakers’ relationship. Graham, who was fired from Courser’s staff in July, gave The News audio recordings supporting that scenario. Two other ex-aides also have endorsed that assessment.

House Speaker Kevin Cotter of Mount Pleasant ordered the seizure of records from Courser’s and Gamrat’s offices. He also ordered an investigation to determine if Courser and Gamrat, first-term lawmakers who shared an office, improperly used taxpayer-funded resources to cover up their relationship.

“All of the evidence is protected,” Cotter told The News Monday. “Nothing can be deleted. We have the servers. We have all of these things. So there’s nothing that’s at risk of being lost at this point.”

Employees in the House Business Office began Friday taking possession of documents, laptop computers and servers containing Courser’s and Gamrat’s state email accounts, and continued over the weekend, he said.

Cotter called Courser’s claims of a House-led bugging operation “just ludicrous.”

“He’s really displayed a long and consistent pattern of that type of paranoia. It always circles back to deflection and trying to somehow come out as the victim,” he said. “There are no black helicopters here; no drones circling the House Office Building.”

Gov. Rick Snyder, questioned during an unrelated Monday appearance in Detroit, said the controversy “does need to be investigated very clearly.”

“Is there a breach or not of public trust?” he said. “And that’s an issue about misuse of potentially state resources ... and that’s what I believe the investigation is focused in on.”

A spokesman said the Ingham County Sheriff’s Office hasn’t received a blackmail complaint. Had one been filed, he said, it would be sent to the Michigan State Police, which also had no record of a complaint.

State police spokeswoman Sierra Medrano noted the House Business Office is investigating whether the lawmakers violated their duties, and said that if it reports “suspected criminal behavior to the MSP for investigation, we will review and consult with the appropriate prosecuting authority to determine if a criminal investigation is merited.”

In a 27-minute audio recording released early Monday, Courser said “the email in question was really put in motion to disrupt, disrupt the blackmailer and to give me some clues as to what their ability was as far as surveillance over my life and the threats they were making.”

Courser acknowledged that issuing the email — which claimed he was an alcoholic and drug-addicted “bisexual monster” — was “over-the-top, it was wrong.”

“It was a fast decision on my part to do the emails,” Courser said. “It was not my finest moment. It was the only option that I felt would be unpredicted by the blackmailer.” He apologized to his family, and to Gamrat’s.

Courser’s rambling audio defense claimed he and Gamrat have been battling “the establishment machine” or “the network.” He speculated their offices were “bugged” by House leaders, and suggested a “ring” of detractors was involved.

Those comments angered colleagues and Republican leaders.

Sen. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge, called them “the paranoid ravings of a man who has thrown his career away.”

“I listened to his 27 minutes of nonsense, yes,” Jones said, when asked if he listened to Courser’s recorded statement. “Only because he sent it to me — it was a lot of babbling.

“I think he’s done a lot of damage to the tea party movement with his antics,” Jones said. “When people used to ask me why I’m not part of the tea party movement I would say ‘Because there’s not a T in Republican.’ From now on I’m going to say ‘I never want to be considered part of Todd Courser’s herd.’”

Sarah Anderson, communications director for Michigan Republican Party Chair Ronna Romney McDaniel, said Courser’s statement is just “him trying to deflect from the issue, which is abuse of his duty.”

“We think he needs to take accountability for his own actions,” Anderson said. “This has nothing to do with tea party versus establishment Republicans.”

House Appropriations Chairman Al Pscholka called Courser’s claims “an excuse for not being able to get anything done, being ineffective.”

“I think his assertion (of an “establishment machine”) is intended to deflect attention from the real problem here,” said Rep. Earl Poleski, R-Jackson. “He has not contradicted the assertion that he’s misbehaved.”

In Monday’s recording, Courser accused former aide Graham, 25, of being part of the blackmail plot. In May, Graham refused to send the email for Courser. Weeks later, Courser gave Graham a 6 percent pay raise, state records show. On July 7, Courser fired Graham without explanation.

Courser accused Graham, and other former aides Keith Allard and Joshua Cline, of being “ill-suited” for legislative work and claimed they “bugged and then wiretapped” the combined House office he and Gamrat ran — an unusual arrangement at the Capitol — at Cotter’s behest.

The former aides released a joint statement Monday.

“Attempts to blame others instead of accepting responsibility is unfortunate,” it said. “We look forward to cooperating with any investigation to ensure that taxpayers are protected and faith in our institutions can be restored. Most important, an investigation will reveal the truth.”