Courser to stand trial; charges dropped for Gamrat
Former state Rep. Todd Courser discusses the criminal charges against him. Chad Livengood, The Detroit News
Lansing — An Ingham County judge ruled Tuesday that former state Rep. Todd Courser should stand trial for allegedly ordering House staff to forge his signature on proposed legislation and then lying about it to a House committee.
But Ingham County District Court Judge Hugh B. Clarke Jr. tossed out two criminal misconduct-in-office charges against former state Rep. Cindy Gamrat, ruling there was insufficient evidence for the Plainwell Republican to stand trial. He similarly dismissed two misconduct charges against Courser, the Lapeer-area Republican, related to his attempt to pressure former House aide Ben Graham to anonymously send an infamous email to fellow Republicans to divert attention from his affair with Gamrat.
The judge said one of the misconduct charges did not stand up because Courser’s attempt to use a state employee to distribute the email was done in Lapeer County, not Ingham County where the charges were filed. “It didn’t take place here,” Clarke said.
The judge said there was insufficient testimony and evidence to suggest Gamrat knowingly lied to House investigators about whether she knew about the contents of a lewd email that Courser distributed to divert attention from their extramarital affair.
“There’s never any conversation that I can discern through testimony that she knew the content of this email,” Clarke ruled Tuesday afternoon from the bench.
The judge also said there wasn’t enough evidence for him to find probable cause that Gamrat instructed her House employees to forge her signature on proposed legislation.
“I think I have a lot of mixed emotions. It’s been a really hard journey,” Gamrat said after the judge’s ruling.
Clarke’s ruling that there’s probable cause to believe Courser forced House employees to forge his signature on bills and then committed perjury sends the case to Ingham County Circuit Court.
“I can’t make a clear determination. I think that’s a jury question,” Clarke said.
Courser resigned from office Sept. 11, 2015 to avoid expulsion for misconduct in office for distributing an email spreading a false story around Lansing that he was caught having sex with a male prostitute behind a nightclub. The House expelled Gamrat and forced Courser out eight months into their first term in office.
Clarke dismissed another misconduct charge that alleged Courser gave false information to the House Business Office during its investigation.
Attorney General Bill Schuette's office does not plan to appeal the tossed charges against Gamrat, spokeswoman Andrea Bitely said.
"We look forward to prosecuting our case in circuit court as approved by Judge Clarke," Bitely said.
Courser, a bankruptcy attorney, said Tuesday the perjury and misconduct charges related to the alleged forgeries are the “weakest” ones Attorney General Bill Schuette brought against him.
“I’ve dealt with this for longer than I was actually in office, which is sort of a strange beast,” Courser told reporters after the decision. “You have mixed emotions — you’re glad that two of (the charges) are gone and really do feel like the other two will go away, it’s just a matter of time. They are the weakest case.”
Courser attorney Matthew DePerno said he will highlight at trial how other representatives — including House Speaker Kevin Cotter, R-Mount Pleasant — have violated the House rule that governs the introduction and signing of bills for co-sponsorship.
“We do have testimony on the record that Speaker Cotter has violated the exact same rule that the attorney general is trying to criminalize in this matter,” DePerno told reporters. “It’s telling that we haven’t seen the state police do any investigation on that even though there’s been sworn testimony to the fact that he did violate that rule.”
DePerno said he intends to call Cotter to testify at trial. The speaker avoided having to testify during Courser and Gamrat’s preliminary examination after a circuit court judge blocked Clarke’s earlier ruling that the GOP leader had to appear.
In the run-up to Tuesday’s rulings on the charges, the judge also ruled that the public admission to misconduct in office could be used against Courser in his criminal prosecution.
Courser and Gamrat’s attorneys had been trying to get the statements to a Michigan House of Representatives committee thrown out, contending their clients confessed to misconduct related to their Capitol romance and combined House office operation under the belief that they would be censured and not face criminal prosecution.
Clarke said the defendants should have known their statements could be used against them, especially since they had no written immunity agreement.
“To me, it seems that if this was going to be done, there’s some things that should have been tightened up. Maybe it should have been in writing that these things aren’t going to happen,” Clarke said. “I wouldn’t have given the interview without having some type of assurances, but that’s just me.”
Courser and Gamrat’s statements before the House committee that investigated their conduct and recommended expulsion also could factor into a pair of lawsuits former aides Keith Allard and Ben Graham have brought against them and the House alleging wrongful termination.
State prosecutors contend Courser and Gamrat had their shared House employees forge their signatures on proposed legislation in an effort to get it introduced before rival Republican Rep. Gary Glenn, R-Midland.
“It wasn’t done for the benefit of the people in the districts. It was done for the benefit to themselves,” Assistant Attorney General Greg Townsend said in his closing arguments.
Courser attorney DePerno said his client allowed his House employees to sign his name on bills just like attorneys can sign for another attorney with their permission.
“He certainly never asked anyone to forge his name,” DePerno said.
Courser’s attorney said the misconduct charge for letting staff sign their names on proposed bills was a “preposterous charge.”
“That is simply a political function of the Legislature,” DePerno said. “They’re attempting to criminalize the idea of having one legislator enter a bill before another legislator enters his bill.”