Courser scandal nears end with misdemeanor plea

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News

Lansing — Former state Rep. Todd Courser has pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor criminal charge, likely ending a three-year legal saga spurred by a sex scandal cover-up that rocked the Capitol and cost him his seat in the Michigan Legislature.

Courser has pleaded to willful neglect of duty by a public officer for soliciting a state employee to send a “false flag” email to discredit rumors of his extramarital affair with fellow state Rep. Cindy Gamrat, Attorney General Dana Nessel announced Wednesday.

Todd Courser

The misdemeanor is punishable by up to one year behind bars or a fine of up to $1,000.

“Today’s decision by Todd Courser to plead no contest to a one-year misdemeanor may be the wisest decision he has made in years,” Nessel said in a statement. “This case has had a long, torturous history and his decision to acknowledge responsibility for his actions is long overdue.”

Courser had faced a separate felony perjury charge in Ingham County about testimony he gave in 2015 to a select Michigan House of Representatives committee investigating his qualifications to remain in office. But Nessel’s office said that case will be dismissed when he is sentenced in Lapeer County on the neglect of duty plea. 

The sentencing should happen by Sept. 16, said Courser defense attorney Matt DePerno. He declined comment on the deal until it becomes official at sentencing but bemoaned what he called a lengthy “political” case.

“After all this time, it’s just a little misdemeanor, which is frankly all that ever should have been charged in the first place,” DePerno said. “The felony stuff was all overcharged by (former Attorney General) Bill Schuette.”

Courser had sought to get the perjury charge dismissed, claiming legislative immunity under the speech and debate clause of the Michigan Constitution.

The former lawmaker exhausted his appeals when the Michigan Supreme Court this year rejected an application to reconsider a state Court of Appeals decision against Courser.

A three-judge appeals panel ruled that Courser was not entitled to legislative immunity because he was not being prosecuted for any speech, debate or deliberation related to legislation.Instead, he was being prosecuted for his “personal conduct at a hearing called to address his potential misconduct in office," the appeals panel wrote. 

Courser resigned from the Michigan House in the early hours of Sept. 11, 2015, to avoid a likely expulsion. Gamrat declined to do the same and was expelled by her peers an hour later.

The Republican tea party duo had been accused of misusing state resources to cover up their extramarital affair.

As The Detroit News first reported, Courser urged a staffer to distribute a fictional email alleging he had sex with a male prostitute in a bid to conceal his actual relationship with Gamrat, as documented in a series of audio recordings.

Courser said on one recording the email was designed to create “a complete smear campaign” of exaggerated, false claims about him and Gamrat so a public revelation about the legislators’ relationship would seem “mild by comparison.”

Schuette, a fellow Republican, filed criminal charges against Courser and Gamrat in February 2016. An Ingham County judge dismissed the charges against Gamrat in June of that year.