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Harassment suit against lawmaker settled for under $12K

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — The Michigan House of Representatives last fall quietly settled a sexual harassment lawsuit brought by a former aide against state Rep. Brian Banks for less than $12,000 — a fraction of the legal bill associated with the suit.

Former House aide Tramaine Cotton had sued Banks in May 2013, claiming the Detroit Democrat had wrongfully fired him after he rejected Banks’ sexual advances.

Cotton settled the lawsuit with the House in October for $11,950, said Gideon D’Assandro, spokesman for House Speaker Kevin Cotter, R-Mount Pleasant.

“We hadn’t been having settlement discussions and right at the end Cotton offered to settle at eleven-thousand and change,” D’Assandro said Monday.

Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Daphne Means Curtis dismissed the lawsuit on Nov. 4, court records show.

Through a lengthy legal proceeding, which included a trip to the Court of Appeals, the House spent $85,622.58 on attorneys to defend its termination of Cotton, who worked for Banks during the legislator’s first few months in office in 2013.

House officials disclosed the Cotton settlement and associated legal bill Monday after the liberal political group Progress Michigan criticized the Republican-controlled majority for spending more than $80,000 through November on private attorneys in the investigation of former GOP Reps. Todd Courser and Cindy Gamrat.

In August, Cotter hired the Dickinson Wright law firm in Lansing to review a House Business Office investigation into Courser and Gamrat’s mixture of their extramarital affair with the operations of a shared House staff.

The internal House investigation was later used to expel Gamrat for official misconduct and misuse of taxpayer resources and force Courser to resign and avoid expulsion.

The House continues to incur legal bills in the Courser-Gamrat matter because Dickinson Wright attorneys are defending the House in a federal whistle-blower suit brought by former House aides Keith Allard and Ben Graham.

Allard and Graham allege that Cotter’s office ignored their concerns that Courser and Gamrat were using House resources to maintain and cover up their affair. The whiste-blower lawsuit also claims House officials knew Courser and Gamrat were wrongly retaliating against Graham and Allard when they fired them in early July — just over a month after the two aides were given pay raises.

Progress Michigan Executive Director Lonnie Scott noted the legal bills in the Courser-Gamrat matter exceed the $71,685 annual salary of a state representative.

“It is troubling and incredibly ironic that two lawmakers were expelled from the House for wasting taxpayer resources, and yet, Speaker Cotter has already spent more than a lawmaker’s salary on an outside firm as a result of his bungled investigation,” Scott said in a statement.

Cotter’s spokesman said the cases are distinctly different legal matters involving sitting state representatives and that the Courser-Gamrat matter required legal opinions outside of the House’s general counsel office.

“One was a straightforward employee-employer lawsuit and the other was a rarely used constitutional matter to remove two sitting state lawmakers,” D’Assandro said.

No disciplinary action will be taken against Banks because none of Cotton’s sexual harrassment allegations were ever proven in court, D’Assandro said.

Banks represents the House’s heavily Democratic 1st District in Wayne County, which includes parts of northeast Detroit, Harper Woods, Grosse Pointe Woods and Grosse Pointe Shores. He did not return a message Monday evening seeking comment.

Cotton’s attorney also could not be reached for comment.

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