Courser-Gamrat saga over but takes toll on Legislature

Gary Heinlein, and Chad Livengood

Lansing — The image of the Michigan Legislature was the biggest loser in the scandal that resulted in the departures of GOP Reps. Todd Courser of Lapeer and Cindy Gamrat of Allegan County, political experts said Friday.

There also may be two unexpected winners: Courser, for unexpectedly deciding to resign from office; and Gamrat’s only son, who sat by his mother for more than 14 hours before the state House voted to oust her from office, a longtime Capitol observer said.

Courser’s and Gamrat’s exits from the Legislature came five weeks after The Detroit News reported the existence of audio recordings of Courser orchestrating a scheme to cover up an extramarital affair with Gamrat. It involved spreading a fictional diversionary story that he was caught having sex with a male prostitute behind a Lansing nightclub.

A resulting House investigation found evidence of Courser and Gamrat engaging in deception and dishonesty to maintain and cover up their affair, as well as misusing taxpayer resources.

The behavior of the two tea party lawmakers and the night-long gridlock between House Republicans and Democrats on the expulsion votes only compounds the Legislature’s negative image, said Tom Shields, founder of Market Resource Group, a Lansing-based public affairs and political consulting firm.

In two rounds of voting, House Republicans lacked the 73 votes or two-thirds majority they needed to expel Courser, as a bloc of 26 Democrats declined to vote. After GOP leaders agreed to a Democratic demand to request an attorney general criminal investigation into the lawmakers, Courser decided to resign and lawmakers voted 91-12 to oust Gamrat.

“The early read is that it adds to the negative feelings toward the Legislature in general. It doesn’t necessarily reflect on Republicans or Democrats in particular,” said Shields, a Republican. “Here you had these two goofballs who tied up the Legislature for a month, while important issues went by the wayside.

“Dealing with it swiftly was a good move on the Republican leadership’s part because it was a soap opera that needed to be put to rest.”

The 14-hour drama on the House floor “wasn’t anyone’s finest moment,” agreed Kelly Rossman McKinney, a Lansing public relations executive and former Democratic legislative staffer.

But Democrats legitimately believed the Republican leadership botched the investigation of Gamrat and Courser, she said, even though initially withholding their votes for expulsion wasn’t the best strategy for achieving their goal.

Rossman McKinney said Courser — who defiantly accused Republican leaders of conducting a “kangaroo court” before its special investigatory committee was even formed — ended up a political winner despite losing his House seat.

“Being expelled is a much harsher judgment in history than resignation,” she said.

A powerful but ignored moment, Rossman McKinney said, was the presence of Gamrat’s oldest child, Joey, at the lawmaker’s side throughout the night — something he said on Twitter that he did on his own. It was an example of a parent owning up to her mistakes and a child supporting his mother, she said.

“That says a lot about that young man’s character,” said Rossman McKinney, who predicted he may run for public office some day. “It says something about her that she took the punishment — not that she wanted it — but she allowed him to be there to see it.

“It was a very courageous moment that got lost in the shuffle.”

On Friday, Gamrat said her son was urging her throughout the night not to resign. At a crucial moment when she was conferring with her East Lansing lawyer, Mike Nichols, she said, “He texted me and said, ‘Mom, don’t resign.’ ”

The former lawmaker, who met with reporters at her attorney’s office for 45 minutes, said she wants to focus on her family.

“I want to go back and be a mom this weekend,” Gamrat said. “I’m just looking forward to that.”

The tea party conservative said she departs Lansing a little disillusioned about state government and undecided about any future in politics.

“It’s just not on my radar right now,” she said.

Gamrat made her comments after the Attorney General’s Office said Friday it already had begun a criminal investigation of Courser and Gamrat — before Democratic leaders insisted the Michigan House formally request one.

“We previously have opened an investigation of the Courser-Gamrat matter,” said John Sellek, a spokesman for Attorney General Bill Schuette, a Republican. “Additionally, the attorney general has discussed this issue with Col. Kriste Etue of the Michigan State Police. We will work with the MSP and conduct a joint investigation, which will be complete and thorough, without fear or favor.”

State police spokeswoman Shanon Banner confirmed the agency “will honor the requests made by the Legislature in House Resolutions 141 and 145 to investigate potential criminal wrongdoing by Representative Courser and Representative Gamrat.”

Nichols said he and other lawyers have pored through the House investigative report that led to her ouster and found nothing that would lead to criminal charges.

“Based on what I’ve seen in the full 833-page report — I know I’ve read it; I don’t know if everybody who voted on it last night read it — I’m not concerned about criminal liability on behalf of my client,” Nichols said.

At best, Nichols said, the evidence shows a possible campaign rules violation that would be a civil matter. Part of the report accused Gamrat of using office staff and resources to foster her unsuccessful bid to become Michigan Republican national committeewoman.

Courser was silent Friday on social media.