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Ex-aide: Fear of suicide led to recording of Courser

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — A former Michigan House aide said Wednesday he secretly recorded a meeting with state Rep. Todd Courser last May because he feared his boss was suicidal and he wanted to document the encounter in case it got bloody.

Ex-House aide Ben Graham testified against his former boss in the first day of a hearing to determine whether Courser’s elaborate efforts to cover up an extramarital affair with former state Rep. Cindy Gamrat rise to the level of criminal misconduct in office.

Knowing Courser keeps a loaded gun in his desk, Graham said he recorded the late-night May 19, 2015, meeting on his phone at Courser’s Lapeer law office to create evidence after the Republican lawmaker called him urgently that night with vague instructions to “destroy me.”

“I thought there was a good possibility that he could harm himself and if I was sitting there with the smoking gun and the body, I felt that if I had a recording, that might help,” Graham said in Ingham County District Court.

“You thought he might actually kill himself?” Assistant Attorney General Greg Townsend asked.

“I thought there was a possibility,” Graham replied.

Instead of harming himself, Courser used the meeting to seek the his state employee’s help in distributing a fake email to fellow Republicans claiming Courser was caught having sex with a male prostitute behind a Lansing nightclub. Graham refused the assignment and Courser’s instructions for him to call in sick to carry out the task.

“I felt sending out an email like that intentionally trying to deceive someone was definitely unethical and possibly illegal,” Graham said.

The tape recording, which he later provided to The Detroit News after Courser fired him last July, revealed Courser wrote and plotted the distribution of the fake email that was intended to divert attention from the affair with Gamrat.

Attorneys for Courser and Gamrat argued Wednesday the tape recording was illegal and should not be admitted into evidence because former House aide Keith Allard encouraged him to make the recording.

Michigan is a one-party consent state, meaning a conversation can be recorded if one person knows there is a recording.

But attorneys for the defendants contend the law doesn’t allow a recording to be made at the behest or instruction of another individual. At the time, Allard worked with Graham in Courser and Gamrat’s combined office as a defacto chief of staff.

“This was an ill-gotten tape recording. ... Directing somebody to tape record a conversation in which you’re not a participant — that’s eavesdropping,” said Mike Nichols, Gamrat’s attorney.

During testimony, Allard acknowledged he advised Graham to record the meeting with Courser. “We were concerned that ex-Rep. Courser had shown a pattern of scheming over the years, he was in a state of mental duress, obviously a manifest state, and I was concerned about (Ben’s) safety,” Allard said.

State attorneys sought to establish Wednesday that Courser abused his office in attempting to cover up the affair and that Gamrat knew about the scheme.

Immanuel “Ike” Eickholdt, a friend and business associate to Courser, testified Wednesday that Courser wanted him to distribute the lewd email to more than 47,000 people across the state after Graham refused the assignment.

Eickholdt said he used Courser’s political email database and three anonymous email accounts to distribute about 4,500 copies of the missive claiming Courser was a porn and drug-addicted, bisexual deviant.

But when one of the recipients replied and talked of contacting law enforcement authorities, Eickholdt said he halted distribution of the email at Courser’s behest.

“At that point, I just shut it down. I just stopped, dead in my tracks,” said Eickholdt, who is  running this summer as a Democrat for a state House seat in Oakland County.

Eickholdt acknowledged under oath Wednesday that he lied to a Detroit News reporter last August when contacted about his role in the scheme. “I did not send an email thing out,” Eickholdt told The News at the time.

The daylong court proceedings started with Courser and Gamrat testifying during an evidential hearing over whether their public testimony to a House committee can be used against them in the criminal proceedings.

Gamrat and Courser said they admitted to misconduct in office before a House committee last year with the understanding that they would get to keep their seats and not face criminal prosecution.

Attorneys for Gamrat and Courser are trying to get their clients’ admissions of guilt under oath thrown out as evidence in the criminal court proceedings because they supposedly were part of settlement negotiations.

“They’re trying to use it as evidence to prove guilt,” Courser attorney Matthew DePerno said after the morning hearing. “And we’re saying those statements were made to avoid expulsion.”

Gamrat, R-Plainwell, said she was told by House GOP attorney Hassan Beydoun she had to sign a statement admitting to misconduct in office to receive a censure from the House and avoid prosecution.

“I believed that signing this statement would resolve everything – expulsion and any further investigation … criminal charges,” Gamrat said. “I felt they would do anything to get me out of there.”

Courser and his attorney during the expulsion proceedings, Dareth Wilson, also took the stand Wednesday morning to testify they believed admitting guilt to certain misconduct charges would lead to a House censure instead of expulsion.

“I inferred there would be no criminal prosecution,” Wilson testified. “I definitely thought we were engaged in settlement negotiations.”

The Michigan House of Representatives passed a resolution calling for the Michigan State Police and Attorney General Bill Schuette to investigate Courser and Gamrat as part of a deal between the Republican majority and Democratic minority to expel Gamrat. Courser resigned to avoid an expulsion vote.

Courser said he only agreed to testify Sept. 9 before a House committee with the understanding from Beydoun that he would get to keep his seat.

“There was settlement negotiations with Mr. Beydoun and, as a matter of fact, I was considering not attending because they didn’t have subpoena power to call me,” Courser said. “(Beydoun) said if I wanted to settle with the House, I had to attend, appear contrite, to apologize and answer their questions fully.”

Judge Hugh B. Clarke Jr. said he would rule on the admissibility issue after preliminary exam testimony concludes. The judge also denied a motion from Courser’s attorney to dismiss the charges ahead of the hearing.

Courser and Gamrat’s preliminary examination hearing will continue Thursday in downtown Lansing.

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Twitter: @ChadLivengood