Ex-Courser, Gamrat aides sue Michigan House
Lansing — Two former aides to ex-Reps. Todd Courser and Cindy Gamrat filed a federal whistleblower lawsuit Monday against the Michigan House of Representatives, alleging their pleas that Courser and Gamrat were engaging in misconduct were ignored by House Speaker Kevin Cotter’s office.
Former House aides Keith Allard and Ben Graham’s lawsuit claims Cotter and his staff did nothing to protect them from Courser and Gamrat’s “retaliation” firing in July after they refused to help cover-up the lawmakers’ affair, violations of House rules and mixing of campaign activities on taxpayer time.
Allard and Ben Graham’s lawsuit also claims someone on House staff leaked copies of their “out-of-context” emails to the media to smear them and unlawfully released their Social Security numbers in the 833-page House report Republicans used to expel Gamrat from office and force Courser to resign in September.
In the lawsuit, Allard and Graham said they informed Cotter and his then-chief of staff, Norm Saari, in mid-February that Courser and Gamrat were carrying an extramarital affair and forcing them to perform political work on state time. Another former aide, Josh Cline, was present at the brief meeting with Cotter and Saari.
“Speaker Cotter appeared genuinely concerned and asked Messrs. Allard, Graham and Cline to continue to keep Mr. Saari abreast of any additional issues,” according to the suit.
The lawsuit, which was filed in U.S. District Court for the western district of Michigan, lays out multiple instances in which Allard, Graham and the third aide relayed their concerns that Courser and Gamrat’s affair was an abuse of taxpayer resources in the combined office they were operating.
Allard and Graham argue they were unlawfully fired in July by the House Business Office at Courser and Gamrat’s request. Cotter’s office later used Allard and Graham’s misconduct allegations and evidence to oust Gamrat and Courser from office.
Cotter, R-Mount Pleasant, said Monday the lawsuit is “wholly without merit” and that Allard and Graham’s firings were justified because they “were substandard staffers, violated House rules, and sent rude and disparaging emails about their coworkers, colleagues, and supervisors.”
“In fact, during the criminal investigation by the Michigan State Police, it became clear that Mr. Allard and Mr. Graham repeatedly lied to House Business Office investigators and lawyers about their knowledge and involvement in a convoluted, months-long extortion plot against their own supervisors,” the speaker said in a statement.
Brandon Dillon, chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party, said it’s ironic that Cotter would use Allard and Graham’s allegations to get rid of Courser and Gamrat and then “trash” their reputations.
“The speaker can’t have it both ways. This evidence clearly pints to a cover-up at the highest levels of the Michigan House of Representatives,” Dillon said. “Rather than the speaker throwing stones at these two brave staffers, he should make sure his own office is clean.”
The Detroit News first reported Aug. 7 about an audio recording Graham made on May 19 of Courser plotting to send a fake email to fellow Republicans on May 20 claiming he was caught having sex with a male prostitute. Graham refused to help his boss send the email, which Courser called a “controlled burn.”
The now infamous email was designed to create the appearance of a smear campaign against Courser and Gamrat in the event their affair was exposed.
The former aides met at least eight times with Cotter’s staff, including on May 21 when Graham alerted Saari and chief Republican House attorney Brock Swartzle that he had “undeniable physical proof” Courser was sending the anonymous email to fellow Republicans smearing himself.
“Mr. Saari asked Mr. Graham to ‘stick it out’ in the short term and that they would work to find him other employment,” according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit also charges, for the first time, that Swartzle did not want Allard and Graham to testify under oath before the House committee investigating Courser and Gamrat.
Allard and Graham said they would testify if subpoenaed by the committee. But on the final day of testimony over Courser and Gamrat’s misconduct, committee Chairman Ed McBroom said Allard and Graham would “plead the fifth” and exercise their constitutional right against self-incrimination, according to the lawsuit.
“Neither Plaintiffs nor their legal counsel ever said that or anything remotely like that,” according to the lawsuit.
Attorneys for Allard and Graham also claim they were wrongfully terminated for exercising “their First Amendment rights to speak on matters of public concern” and Courser and Gamrat’s conduct.
“These matters of public concern included information that Courser and Gamrat misused state taxpayer resources for political purposes and activities, and that they were responsible for the deceptive sending of the May 20 email designed to mislead the public and their constituents,” the lawsuit says.
Cotter has defended his staff’s handling of Allard, Graham and Cline’s complaints and has said it wasn’t his job to “police affairs.”
Allard and Graham are seeking unspecified economic and non-economic damages for lost wages and the House’s public release of their Social Security numbers, which was brought to the attention of House officials by The Detroit News and other news outlets.
It took House employees nearly 24 hours to remove from its website a copy of the report containing Allard and Graham’s Social Security numbers, according to the lawsuit.
Cotter called on the former House aides to drop their lawsuit “before their lives and careers also became nationwide cautionary tales in how not to conduct oneself on the job.”
“Rather than put this sordid matter behind them, Mr. Allard and Mr. Graham have chosen instead to drag this institution back into their mud pit and waste even more of the people’s resources on this ridiculous issue,” he said.
Dillon said Cotter has stooped to Courser’s level of lobbing insults at the former House aides.
“The statement by Rep. Cotter today could have been written by Rep. Courser,” said Dillon, a former state representative. “That’s not company I’d want to be in if I was the speaker.”
Separately, Allard and Graham have sued Courser and Gamrat in Ingham County Circuit Court for wrongful termination.
Courser faces additional charges of slander in the state lawsuit for claiming Allard and Graham were part of a blackmail “ring” to force the pair to end their romance and resign from office.
A Michigan State Police investigation concluded Gamrat’s husband, Joe, orchestrated a string of anonymous text messages sent to the phones of his wife and Courser demanding they resign or have their affair publicly exposed.
The Lapeer County prosecutor declined to charge Joe Gamrat or his accomplice with any crime, saying their anonymous threatening text messages did not rise to the level of criminal extortion.
Courser has said Allard and Graham have been “working to get some sort of settlement” from the House.
“I would suspect the leadership would be quick to try to shut that down with some sort of secret settlement with taxpayer resources,” Courser said in a Nov. 15 Internet video.