Unlike Courser, Gamrat, courts get 1st crack at 2 Dems

Gary Heinlein
The Detroit News
Sen. Virgil Smith faces criminal charges over an incident earlier this year when he fired shots into his ex-wife’s Mercedes outside his Detroit home.

Lansing — The departures of former Reps. Todd Courser and Cindy Gamrat may have ended one scandal, but it has set the stage for eventual possible disciplinary action against two Detroit Democratic lawmakers who are embroiled in legal proceedings.

Sen. Virgil Smith faces criminal charges over an incident earlier this year when he fired shots into his ex-wife’s Mercedes outside his Detroit home. Rep. Brian Banks is the target of a lawsuit filed by a former aide alleging workplace sexual harassment.

The cases have been handled differently because legislative leaders want a legal resolution of the cases involving Banks and Smith before deciding whether or how the lawmakers should be penalized for their actions.

By contrast, the political misconduct cases against the two tea party lawmakers have not resulted in findings of criminality, but Attorney General Bill Schuette’s office is investigating.

Courser, the Lapeer Republican, resigned early Friday morning. He masterminded the distribution of a fictional email to smear himself and Gamrat to cover up their extramarital affair, and the House Business Office found that both lawmakers engaged in “deceptive, deceitful and outright dishonest conduct” that also involved the misuse of taxpayer resources.

Gamrat, the Plainwell Republican, was expelled by the state House shortly afterward, having apologized and pleaded for a lighter punishment.

“Smith and Banks have proceedings going through the courts right now,” said political policy adviser Jeff Williams, chief executive officer of Lansing’s Public Sector Consultants. “This (the Courser-Gamrat case) is squarely in the Legislature’s lap because there had been no referral to the judicial system” before Friday’s request.

The process for disciplining legislators is guided by a state constitutional provision that says each legislative chamber “shall be the sole judge of the qualifications, elections and returns of its members, and may, with the concurrence of two-thirds of all the members elected thereto and serving therein, expel a member.”

Williams and others draw a distinction between the noncriminal charges against Courser and Gamrat, past lawmaker expulsions and the troubles Smith and Banks face. In the earlier cases:

■ In 1887, lawmakers expelled Rep. Milo H. Dakin of Saginaw County for seeking or accepting money from the mayor of Saginaw and others to “corruptly” use “among members of the House of Representatives ... to influence their votes” for a bill amending Saginaw’s charter, according to the Michigan House Journal.

■ The House voted 84-20 in May 1978 to oust Rep. Monte Geralds, an attorney and Democratic representative from Madison Heights, who was convicted of embezzling $24,000 from a client in his law practice.

■ The Senate expelled Washington Township Republican David Jaye on Memorial Day 2001, the only time the upper chamber has voted to oust a member. Fellow senators said they were acting on a history of three convictions involving driving under influence of alcohol, two domestic violence instances, alleged abusive treatment of Senate staffers and suggestive photos on his official laptop.

Smith was stripped of committee assignments and office staff following his arrest in the May 10 incident but returned to the Senate after missing several sessions. He votes on legislation but leaves promptly after each adjournment and has refused to comment publicly.

The Detroit senator has been ordered by a Wayne County judge to stand trial for felonious assault, malicious destruction of personal property of $20,000 or more and possessing a firearm during the commission of a felony as well as a misdemeanor count of domestic violence.

Smith allegedly got into a physical argument with his ex-wife, chased her outside and pumped shotgun blasts into her car after she discovered him in bed with another woman and angrily pushed her way into his house.

Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof said he and Minority Leader Jim Ananich agree it’s inappropriate to start any further disciplinary proceedings against Smith pending the outcome of his court case.

“In Sen. Smith’s case there’s an open police investigation and some possibility of a felony (conviction),” Meekhof said. “ ...Pending adjudication of those charges, we should wait to take any action.”

Rep. Brian Banks is the target of a lawsuit filed by a former aide alleging workplace sexual harassment.

Banks was sued in May 2013 by former aide Tramaine Cotton, who alleged the legislator wrongfully fired him after he rejected Banks’ sexual advances. In the lawsuit, Cotton alleged Banks took him to a Lansing hotel in April 2013 and forced oral sex on him.

In March, a three-judge Michigan Court of Appeals panel rejected Banks’ argument that he should be able to invoke “absolute immunity” from legal liability under the state Constitution for members of the Legislature that pertains to “speech and debate.” The appeals panel ruled the lawsuit could proceed.

The House has been subpoenaed and has turned over records requested in the evidentiary discovery process of the Banks lawsuit, said Gideon D’Assandro, spokesman for House Speaker Kevin Cotter, R-Mount Pleasant.

“We cannot comment on an ongoing court case,” D’Assandro said.

Banks has denied Cotton’s sexual harassment allegations and said in court documents he fired Cotton after learning Cotton had been driving him back and forth from Detroit to Lansing on a suspended license and had an outstanding bench warrant for missing a court appearance.

Banks, who could not be reached for comment, was among the 11 House members who voted “no” on Gamrat's expulsion early Friday morning.

Republican strategist Greg McNeilly argued that Republican leaders have acted quickly to police their ranks. But he accused Democratic leaders of hypocrisy and a lack of accountability for taking no action against Banks and no further action against Smith, such as public censure.

What makes the cases jarring is the severity of the accusations against the Detroit lawmakers, McNeilly said.

The Courser-Gamrat scandal involved consensual sex and a misuse of taxpayer resources, while the Democratic cases involve allegations of forced sex and violence, he said.

Democratic leaders have been “almost mute” in response to “really serious allegations of felonious assault,” said McNeilly, president of the conservative Michigan Freedom Fund.

“That shows a real difference in terms of concern for ethics and integrity,” he said.

But Democrats accused Cotter and his Republican majority of covering up possible criminal behavior involving Courser and Gamrat. They called for an investigation by Schuette and the Michigan State Police, who already were looking into Courser’s claims of anonymous text messages demanding his resignation to stave off the revelation of the affair.

Rep. Sam Singh, D-East Lansing, said during floor debate that he was concerned about the precedent they were setting for future expulsions.

“In the end, process does matter. That’s one thing we can control,” Singh said. “I can’t control the actions of the two members. I find them despicable, the actions that they took. I find it disrespectful to the institution.

“But the question is, doing a rushed process is also disrespectful to the institution.”

Singh sought to draw differences between the expulsions of Geralds and Jaye — who faced criminal charges — with proof that Courser and Gamrat plotted to cover up their affair.

“The past precedents of this chamber has been to allow the legal process to move itself through,” said Singh, who also voted “no” on Gamrat’s expulsion.

Williams said while each case is unique, the Courser-Gamrat proceedings charted a new course in legislative annals because of the lack of criminal allegations.

“This aura is part of Michigan politics for at least the next decade,” he said.

GHeinlein@detroitnews.com

(517) 371-3660

Detroit News Staff Writer Chad Livengood contributed.