Ex-Courser, Gamrat staffers to get $170K settlements

Michael Gerstein
The Detroit News

Lansing — The Michigan House of Representatives has agreed to pay $515,000 in settlements to two former legislative aides who worked for two former lawmakers involved in a sex cover-up scandal and the law firm that represented them, according to a settlement agreement their lawyer released Tuesday.

Keith Allard during the trial for Courser and Gamrat.

Keith Allard and Ben Graham will both get checks for $169,985.42 from the Michigan House, according to the settlement agreement. The staffers alleged that they were wrongfully fired on July 7, 2015, by first-term Republican Reps. Todd Courser of the Lapeer area and Cindy Gamrat of Plainwell.

The law firm hired by the staffers — Pinsky, Smith, Fayette & Kennedy, LLP — will also receive a $175,029.16 settlement check from the state House, according to the agreement.

Former staffer Ben Graham while testifying when former state representatives Todd Courser and Cindy Gamrat were tried earlier this year.

Allard and Graham’s lawyer, Sarah Howard, said in a Tuesday statement that the settlement “vindicates what we have been saying all along: Keith and Ben were unfairly and illegally fired after stepping forward to speak out about the illegal and unethical conduct of their supervisors, Todd Courser and Cindy Gamrat.”

Courser, a Lapeer Republican, had asked aide Graham to distribute a false email alleging Courser had sex with a male prostitute in a bid to divert attention from an affair he was having with Gamrat. The email was meant to create a “complete smear campaign” so any disclosure of the affair would seem “mild by comparison,” according to recordings that Courser’s aide shared with The Detroit News.

In September 2015, Courser resigned an hour before the House overwhelmingly voted to oust Gamrat on allegations the tea party lawmakers misused taxpayer resources to hide their affair.

Allard and Graham were seeking damages for lost wages and other harm. In December, they filed a whistleblower lawsuit in Grand Rapids federal court arguing that Courser and Gamrat fired them for reporting “unethical and illegal” actions to House Speaker Kevin Cotter’s then chief of staff and majority counsel.

Cotter, R-Mount Pleasant, originally called the suit “wholly without merit” and called the aides “substandard staffers” who sent rude emails about colleagues and supervisors.

“This has been a shameful chapter in the history of the Michigan House of Representatives, which put two young staffers in an impossible situation,” Howard said. “When Keith and Ben turned to House leadership and its top staff for guidance and support, they instead lost their jobs and had their lives turned upside down for more than a year.”

Allard and Graham “wanted their jobs back and an apology,” she said, adding that they were instead “dragged into lengthy litigation and found themselves the focus of intense — and unwanted — media scrutiny” but were “relieved to have reached a financial settlement.”

The House argued that its leadership and management staff did not wrongfully let the two staffers go, but has agreed to pay the settlement amount, according to the settlement agreement filed Tuesday.

Cotter spokesman Gideon D’Assandro said the settlement was “purely a financial decision” and that it doesn’t “vindicate” Allard and Graham.

A joint statement from Cotter’s office, Allard and Graham stressed the financial incentive for avoiding future and costly court battles as a victory for taxpayers.

“All the parties believe now that settlement avoids further expensive litigation and is in the best interest of everyone including the House as an institution and the Michigan taxpayers,” the statement said. “Notwithstanding any of the other differences between the parties, the House appreciates that Mr. Allard and Mr. Graham did the right thing and brought serious concerns about the activities of Todd Courser and Cindy Gamrat to light, allowing the House to take appropriate action.”