Experts: Text threats may be extortion, not blackmail
Lansing— It would be an uphill battle to prove blackmail against the person who allegedly sent text messages to Republican state Reps. Todd Courser and Cindy Gamrat threatening to expose their relationship, legal experts say.
Courser has said he launched a smear campaign against himself involving a sordid tale of paying a male prostitute for sex because he and Gamrat were the victims of a “blackmail” plot to “control” their behavior and make them involuntarily leave office.
But some of Courser’s colleagues in the legal profession don’t think a demand for resignation, with the promise of humiliation if they refused, rises to the level of criminal blackmail. They include Gamrat’s own attorney.
“You have to demand money for disclosure of something, so trash talk is not necessarily a crime, but sometimes it can look like blackmail,” Gamrat attorney Andrew Abood said last week.
The texter did not stand to gain an apparent economic benefit or hurt any property if Courser resigned from office, said Peter Henning, a former federal prosecutor and Wayne State University law professor.
“It’s not close enough to be a criminal offense as Michigan and federal laws define it,” Henning said. “That is immoral; it is not illegal.”
But some criminal defense attorneys who reviewed the text messages say the threats may meet the threshold for felony extortion by demanding Courser, of Lapeer, and Gamrat, of Plainwell, resign against their own free will.
The House Business Office is expected to wrap up this week its investigation of whether Courser and Gamrat misused their taxpayer-funded office and staff to cover up their relationship.
University of Southern California law professor Scott Altman noted Michigan’s blackmail and extortion law allows prosecution for a threat to expose a crime, to threaten injury to a person or property, or “with intent to compel the person so threatened to do or refrain from doing any act against his will. ...”
Under Michigan’s penal code for “malicious threats to extort money,” those found guilty can be sentenced to state prison for up to 20 years or fined up to $10,000.
Courser has released text messages from a (313) 421-5345 phone number that he said he and his brother, Dan, received between May 21 and Aug. 7 — the day The Detroit News first reported on Courser’s phony email alleging he was caught having sex with a man behind a Lansing nightclub. The phone number is currently disconnected.
“I’m letting everybody off the hook ... on 1 condition only ... you resign Todd, Tuesday. Mention your health, your new found family bond. DO NOT mention Cindy,” a May 21 text message reads.
On May 19, then-aide Ben Graham taped Courser instructing him to send fellow Republicans an “obscene” story about him through an anonymous email account. Graham refused the assignment and provided a recording to The News after Courser fired him in early July.
On the recording, Courser says he and Gamrat each received text messages seven minutes after the House session ended that afternoon threatening to expose their liaisons.
“They’re saying they have a tape or some pictures or some video or something that’s going to come out,” Courser told Graham.
State police investigate
Courser, a bankruptcy attorney from Lapeer, has not publicly released the May 19 text messages that he claimed triggered his decision to send fellow Republicans the fictional “controlled burn” email claiming he was a drug, alcohol and “bi-sexual porn addicted sex deviant.”
Courser has turned over the text messages to the FBI and Michigan State Police — which has launched an investigation — and has denied he is behind the text messages himself.
“If it wasn’t true, obviously, I’d be making false statements to the police,” Courser told MLive.com.
Gamrat spokesman Justin Near said Thursday a private investigator hired by her attorney has tracked down the owner of the cellphone number that was used to send the text messages to Courser and Gamrat.
Near said the name the investigator traced back to the phone number is not Gamrat, Courser, Courser’s brother, Gamrat’s husband or the lawmakers’ former aides — Keith Allard, Joshua Cline and Ben Graham.
When Courser initially published the text messages on Aug. 11, he claimed in a Facebook post that his former aides “worked with political consultant David Forsmark to concoct a plot to remove” him from office.
Forsmark denied ever sending Courser any text messages — as have the former House aides — and has been blasting Courser on Facebook almost daily for dragging him into the controversy.
“What do I sue him for? A day of entertainment?” Forsmark said. “And anonymous texts from a prepaid phone is illegal, how?”
A 2014 Michigan Supreme Court ruling eliminated a threshold of the seriousness of the act someone demands in an extortion scheme, Birmingham attorney Adam Rumschlag said.
“Assuming there is somebody who sent these messages to (Courser), it’s pretty clearly extortion,” Rumschlag said. “I don’t know how it gets even more serious — to end somebody’s political career and embarrass that person and affect their family and income, this would be some pretty serious extortion.”
Peter Houk, a former Ingham County prosecutor and judge, said the messages amount to extortion because they sought to expose Courser and Gamrat allegedly committing an act that remains a crime in Michigan: adultery.
“If it’s still on the books, it’s covered,” Houk said. “But I’ve never heard of anybody actually being charged with (adultery).”
But Gamrat’s attorney doubts the text messages amount to a form of extortion.
“Extortion typically is an exchange of ... money or I won’t pursue a criminal case against you,” Abood said.
Lansing attorney Michael Cronkright also reviewed the text messages for The News and said they amount to “simply harassment,” but not blackmail or extortion.
“It’s a very weak case for extortion,” Cronkright said. “It’s definitely not blackmail. ... Common law blackmail is for money.”
“Malicious threats to extort money — Any person who shall, either orally or by a written or printed communication, maliciously threaten to accuse another of any crime or offense, or shall orally or by any written or printed communication maliciously threaten any injury to the person or property or mother, father, husband, wife or child of another with intent thereby to extort money or any pecuniary advantage whatever, or with intent to compel the person so threatened to do or refrain from doing any act against his will, shall be guilty of a felony, punishable by imprisonment in the state prison not more than 20 years or by a fine of not more than 10,000 dollars.”
Source: Section 750.213 of Michigan penal code