Former aides sue ex-Reps. Gamrat and Courser, saying they created hostile work environment
Two former legislative aides of ex-Reps. Todd Courser and Cindy Gamrat filed a lawsuit against them Friday, arguing their former bosses created a hostile work environment while carrying on a Capitol romance and later slandered them after the affair was exposed.
Former aides Keith Allard and Ben Graham sued Courser and Gamrat in Ingham County Circuit Court, seeking whistle-blower protection for reporting hostile behavior to House of Representatives staff before Courser and Gamrat fired them July 6 without explanation. They claim the firing was retaliation for reporting ethical and campaign finance violations by their bosses to House Speaker Kevin Cotter’s office.
The House was not named as a defendant in the suit, but could be added at a later date. Allard and Graham’s attorneys said they have an agreement with House attorneys to suspend the 90-day statute of limitations for a whistle-blower lawsuit. The statute of limitation expires Sunday, three months after Courser and Gamrat fired Graham and Allard.
The civil suit marks the first courtroom action taken against the Republican former lawmakers since the scandal surrounding their admitted affair and cover-up was exposed on Aug. 7 by The Detroit News. The Michigan State Police and Attorney General’s Office are investigating whether Courser of Lapeer and Gamrat of Plainwell committed any crimes using state employees and facilities to cover up their affair and conduct political work.
Grand Rapids attorney Sarah Riley Howard, who is representing Allard and Graham, also sent Courser a letter Thursday demanding that he “publicly and unequivocally retract” public statements he has made that claim her clients were trying to anonymously blackmail him and Gamrat into resigning from office to avoid having their extramarital affair exposed.
Courser has claimed the former aides were part of a blackmail “ring” sending him and Gamrat anonymous text messages threatening to expose their affair. Courser has said the text messages caused him to orchestrate a campaign to smear himself before the affair with Gamrat was publicly revealed.
Howard also demanded Courser retract statements he made in a Sept. 21 Facebook post, claiming Allard and Graham were incompetent and engaged in the “same misconduct” he and Gamrat admitted to in the lead up to her House expulsion and his resignation from office last month.
The lawsuit contains new details about Courser and Gamrat’s affair and the events that led to Courser’s dissemination of a fictional email on May 20 and May 21 claiming he had been caught having sex with a male prostitute behind a Lansing nightclub.
Allard and Graham allege Courser and Gamrat forced them to do political work on state government time and lie to Gamrat’s husband, Joe, about their whereabouts as a condition of their House employment.
According to the lawsuit, Joe Gamrat told Allard on May 15 he had “physical proof” his wife and Courser were having an affair and that his wife had admitted to the relationship.
Four days later, Courser called Graham to his Lapeer law office late at night to try to get him to send the “outlandish, untrue anonymous email.”
“Defendant Courser wanted Mr. Graham to send the email from an anonymous email account so that if news broke of his extramarital affair with Gamrat, Courser could later claim that he was being targeted by political enemies,” according to the complaint.
Graham recorded his boss plotting to send the email without Courser’s knowledge, which is legal. During the meeting, Courser repeatedly referred to the email scheme as a “controlled burn” designed to “inoculate the herd,” according to Graham’s audio recording.
“Mr. Graham urged Courser not to engage in this type of deception and refused to send the email,” the lawsuit says
Graham later provided the audio recording exclusively to The Detroit News after Courser fired him in early July. The News’ Aug. 7 report about Courser’s scheme led to House leaders holding disciplinary hearings and his abrupt Sept. 11 resignation to avoid being expelled from office.
The lawsuit says Joe Gamrat called Allard on July 3 to tip him off that “he had overheard a conversation” between Cindy Gamrat and Courser in which they talked about firing Allard and Graham “the next business day.”
Courser and Gamrat directed House Business Office Director Tim Bowlin to fire Allard and Graham on July 6. In a report detailing Courser and Gamrat’s misconduct, Bowlin said his office followed the House’s normal employment protocols and that the former aides did not qualify for whistle-blower protections.
As House employees, Graham and Allard were at-will workers who served at the pleasure of Courser and Gamrat but were technically employees of the House speaker. For all intents and purposes, however, they reported to Courser and Gamrat.
The lawsuit says Courser and Gamrat used the House Business Office to fire Allard and Graham “in retaliation” for the aides taking their concerns to Cotter’s staff.
Allard and Graham’s attorneys claim their clients “lost earnings and benefits, suffered mental anguish, emotional distress and unfair reputational damage for which” Courser and Gamrat are liable.
The lawsuit was assigned to Ingham County Circuit Judge James Jamo.