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Rep. Cindy Gamrat admits misconduct; censure requested

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau
Cindy Gamrat testifies before the House committee.

Lansing— In a bid to keep her job, state Rep. Cindy Gamrat admitted Tuesday to misusing taxpayer resources and official misconduct, while the House’s top attorney urged the expulsion of Rep. Todd Courser for his “bizarre” attempt to cover up an extramarital affair with Gamrat.

House general counsel Brock Swartzle said while Courser should “be expelled immediately,” Gamrat deserves a censure by the House with “severe” restrictions that could include losing her seat on the appropriations committee and no control over her staff.

Gamrat, R-Plainwell, delivered a tearful apology Tuesday morning during a dramatic first day of House hearings over whether she and Courser remain fit to serve in a scandal that has rocked the Capitol during the past month. She faced a few mild questions from fellow Republicans on the special House committee weighing her and Courser’s political fate.

“It is my hope through taking responsibility and accepting the consequences of my actions that corrections can be made so that healing and restoration can begin,” Gamrat said, fighting back tears. “... These decisions have dishonored God, my family, my district and my fellow representatives. And for that I am truly sorry.”

But Republicans who control the House signaled their intent to mete out different forms of punishment for the two representatives, whose affair has generated international headlines since The Detroit News first exposed Courser’s bungled cover-up.

It came before the House late Tuesday afternoon put the 832-page report online with some redactions. The committee is scheduled to meet Wednesday and Thursday.

Rep. John Chirkun, a retired Wayne County sheriff’s department investigator, said expelling Courser while sparing Gamrat is akin to one suspect being “more culpable than the other” in a criminal prosecution.

“They’re very adamant that they want Todd Courser gone,” said Chirkun, D-Roseville.

The chairman of the special House committee disagreed.

“It’s more akin to somebody seeing the writing on the wall and asking for mercy,” said Rep. Ed McBroom, a Dickinson County Republican.

Courser, R-Lapeer, also begged for mercy Tuesday, sending committee members a letter asking them to consider censuring him as well “to allow me the opportunity to redeem myself in the public eye and restore the integrity of the State of Michigan.”

“I admit I had an inappropriate relationship with Representative Cindy Gamrat,” Courser wrote in the letter. “I admit that I attempted to cover up the affair by sending an outlandish email.”

Unlike Gamrat, though, Courser’s letter did not directly admit to the House Business Office’s findings of misconduct and misuse of taxpayer money.

After the hearing, Gamrat told The News she does not believe Courser should be ousted.

“I think his voters should decide,” she said.

May is the earliest Courser or Gamrat could face expensive recall elections. Both would likely draw heavy opposition in the August 2016 Republican primary.

During Tuesday’s hearing, Democrats tried to dig into why Gamrat and Courser gave aides Keith Allard and Ben Graham pay raises in late May a week after Courser tried to involve Graham in a cover-up of their affair — only to fire the pair in early July without explanation.

“I’m just trying to get my head around this,” said Rep. Frank Liberati, D-Allen Park.

Gamrat’s attorney, Mike Nichols, steered Liberati and Chirkun back to Gamrat’s statement admitting to the findings of the House Business Office report.

“I wanted to hear her talk,” Liberati said.

But Republicans kept the focus on whether Gamrat can serve her constituents in the 80th District in Allegan County.

“There’s hope for her to be an effective legislator,” said Swartzle, the House’s general counsel.

Courser cannot be an effective House member for the last 16 months of his term, he said.

“He has burned any credible bridge that he had,” said Swartzle, who also is chief of staff to House Speaker Kevin Cotter, R-Mount Pleasant.

Gamrat read from a statement Tuesday, admitting to a House report’s findings that the pair engaged in “deceptive, deceitful and outright dishonest conduct” by using their offices, staff and taxpayer dollars to “cover up an affair.”

She also acknowledged Courser mistreated their former aides in the lawmakers’ combined office and that she should have done more to stop his behavior.

“My approach to Lansing and the people who serve here was off-key and lacked the respect that was due,” said Gamrat, a nurse by training who home-schooled her three children.

After Gamrat’s initial testimony, Swartzle and House Business Office director Tim Bowlin detailed Courser’s misconduct. Swartzle said Courser was the principal actor in the misconduct, while Gamrat was a mixture of a principal and an accomplice in Courser’s efforts.

“Under any standard of appropriate behavior, Rep. Courser has failed in miserable and spectacular fashion,” Swartzle said. “... Rep. Courser tried to hide his adultery in quite possibly the most bizarre attempt at misdirection seen in the history of this Legislature.”

Swartzle quoted Courser from a May 19 meeting recorded by then-aide Graham in which the Lapeer Republican sought Graham’s help in sending an email to fellow Republicans that would create the appearance of a smear campaign against him and Gamrat.

Courser’s email, which he dubbed a “controlled burn,” was designed to “inoculate the herd,” according to the May 19 audio recording. Sent anonymously to Republicans on May 20 and 21, it read that Courser was caught having sex with a male prostitute behind a Lansing nightclub.

In explaining why Gamrat should be censured, Swartzle said she has taken more actions to publicly apologize.

After the hearing, Allard said it’s inaccurate to say Gamrat played a lesser role.

“At no point in my employment with Mrs. Gamrat did I ever witness her question or object to Mr. Courser; rather, she willingly aided and abetted his behavior and actions,” Allard said in a statement.

Swartzle disclosed Tuesday that Graham told him about Courser’s fictitious email “shortly after” Graham refused to send it. At the time, Swartzle said, he could not find anything illegal about Courser creating a smear campaign against himself.

“Self-defamation is not illegal,” Swartzle said.

Rep. Kurt Heise, the Plymouth Republican vice chairman of the committee, said admitting wrongdoing at the start of the hearings is “very helpful in our decision-making process.”

Nichols said his client made no deal with Cotter’s office to ensure that she’s spared of an expulsion, which has happened three times in the Legislature’s 178-year history.

An expulsion would require a two-thirds majority of the 109-member House. A censure would need a 55-member majority via a resolution condemning the legislators for their actions.

The chances of no disciplinary action, Heise said, is “pretty unlikely.”