LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Two former legislative aides sued the Michigan House on Monday, alleging they were wrongfully fired and publicly humiliated after repeatedly reporting lawmakers’ extramarital affair and other misconduct to Speaker Kevin Cotter’s office.
In a federal lawsuit, Keith Allard and Ben Graham, who were joint staffers for ex-Reps. Todd Courser and Cindy Gamrat until July, said they alerted Cotter’s aides to “matters of public concern” including their married Republican bosses’ affair, absence at work during business hours and demands that staffers send political emails during hours of state employment. However, they alleged, Cotter’s office covered it up and let them be dismissed at the behest of Courser and Gamrat in violation of their whistleblower and free speech rights.
They said Cotter, a Republican, only ordered an investigation after they passed along their concerns to The Detroit News, which in August broke the scandal by releasing a secret audio recording in which Courser asked Graham to send a sexually explicit phony email saying Courser had been caught having sex with a male prostitute behind a Lansing nightclub. The staffer refused, and Courser found someone outside government to send it.
The mass email to GOP activists and reporters was an attempt to make the affair less believable if it was exposed by an anonymous blackmailer who was texting Courser and Gamrat. A state police investigation found that Gamrat’s husband, Joe, orchestrated the extortion plot to end the affair.
“We took the proper steps to redress this situation by quietly and consistently reporting the illegal and unethical actions of our former supervisors,” Allard and Graham said in a statement. “Speaker Cotter’s staff assured us repeatedly that they would take action and yet did nothing. They attempted to cover up for former Representatives Courser and Gamrat by condoning our terminations.”
Cotter, who has said he knew nothing of allegations of misused resources until the scandal became public, said in a statement that the suit is “wholly without merit.”
He said a House Business Office investigation that led to Gamrat’s expulsion and Courser’s resignation in September and a state police probe of the blackmail scheme corroborated that the aides “were substandard staffers, violated House rules, and sent rude and disparaging emails about their co-workers, colleagues and supervisors. In short, much like their bosses, Mr. Allard and Mr. Graham deserved to be removed from the Michigan House of Representatives. … Rather than put this sordid matter behind them, Mr. Allard and Mr. Graham have chosen instead to drag this institution back into their mud pit and waste even more of the people’s resources on this ridiculous issue.”
Cotter said the staffers “repeatedly lied to House Business Office investigators and lawyers about their knowledge and involvement in a convoluted, months-long extortion plot against their own supervisors.”
The suit, which seeks unspecified monetary damages, recounts meetings in which the aides raised misconduct concerns with Norm Saari, Cotter’s chief of staff at the time whom Gov. Rick Snyder appointed to the Michigan Public Service Commission in July. Cotter walked through Saari’s office during another meeting and asked Graham, Allard and another staffer, Joshua Cline, to keep Saari abreast of any additional issues, according to the suit.
The complaint accuses top House officials of such things as publishing their Social Security numbers in the Business Office’s report, releasing unrelated work emails to “embarrass plaintiffs” and falsely suggesting they planned to “plead the Fifth” if called before a special disciplinary committee investigating Courser and Gamrat’s qualifications for office.
Democrats, who have attacked the House investigation as rushed and self-serving, called for state law enforcement authorities to update legislators on their ongoing criminal probe.
“Rather than the speaker throwing stones at these two great staffers, he should make sure that his own office is clean before he starts smearing others,” Michigan Democratic Party Chairman Brandon Dillon said. “These are very serious allegations, even more serious than those that ultimately led to the former representatives leaving the House.”