Former staffers for ousted tea party philanderers Cindy Gamrat and Todd Courser have filed a federal lawsuit against the Republican leadership of the Michigan State House of Representatives claiming they were wrongfully terminated. The 36-page lawsuit, which you can read HERE, outlines repeated attempts by Ben Graham and Keith Allard to alert House Speaker Kevin Cotter and the Republican leaders of the House Business Office of Gamrat’s and Courser’s illegal use of government resources, illicit sexual affair, and their creation of a hostile work environment for their staffers.
According to the suit, Allard, Graham, and other new staffers were told repeatedly during their orientation that they should take any employment concerns to Chief of Staff Norm Saari, House Majority Counsel Brock Swartzle, or the House Business Office. They did so on at least eight occasions including once when Speaker Cotter walked through the office during the meeting and was brought up to speed on what Allard and Graham were seeing.
Their suit contends that House leadership, including Cotter, did nothing to protect them and then allowed them to be fired illegally. Once fired, their reputations were tarnished by misstatements in the HBO report on Courser and Gamrat and by inaccurate characterizations made by a number of parties involved in the sordid affair.
Graham and Allard also had their personal information like Social Security Numbers released to the public and, when they approved a statement to be read at the hearing over Courser’s and Gamrat’s termination, the statements they agreed to were altered. From the lawsuit:
At 9:12 p.m. on September 9, 2015, the night before the final day of public hearings by the Select Committee, outside counsel for the Defendant, Peter Ellsworth, emailed counsel for Plaintiffs wanting her to approve the following statement to be read on Plaintiffs’ behalf by Rep. McBroom, the House Select Committee Chair (“the Committee Chair”) first thing the next morning:
“Ken [sic] and Ben have no comment and nothing to add beyond [sic] what they told the house business office.”
After consulting with Plaintiffs at that late hour, legal counsel for Plaintiffs responded by email at 11:06 p.m. to Mr. Ellsworth’s request by saing that the Committee Chair could read the following as Plaintiffs’ statement:
“Mr. Allard and Mr. Graham adamantly deny any suggestion in the House Business Office Report or otherwise that they were fired for good cause. Reps. Courser and Gamrat had them wrongfully terminated because they refused to misuse taxpayer resources or otherwise cover up other misconduct by Reps. Courser and Gamrat. Mr. Allard and Mr. Graham fully cooperated with the House Business Office investigation and provided relevant information they have to that body.”
The next morning on September 10, 2015, the Select Committee conducted its final day of public hearings into the misconduct of Gamrat and Courser. However, when the Committee Chair read what he said was the statement of Plaintiffs, it had been subtly but importantly changed from what Plaintiffs’s attorney had provided the night before. Instead of stating that Mr. Allard and Mr. Graham “…provided relevant information they have to [the House Business Office investigation]” as part of the statement Plaintiffs had approved, the Committee Chair read that Plaintiffs provided “all pertinent documents to the House Business Office report.” The suggestion was made that the Plaintiffs had been asked to provide information relevant to the legality of their employment termination, which they were not; and that the Report contained all relevant facts about the legality of their termination and what Plaintiffs had spoken about, to whom, and when, which it did not.
According to their suit, Chair McBroom would not allow Graham or Allard to testify at the Select Committee hearing and, when questioned several times about it, said that they would just “plead the 5th”, something both of them deny having said or intended.
The lawsuit accuses House Republican leadership of two counts of violation of the 1st Amendment rights, one count of violation of the Michigan Whistleblower Protection Act, one county of violating Public Policy, and one count of Invasion of Privacy.
These accusations bring to light something Democrats in the House were highly concerned about all along, concerns that lead them to ask for the process to be slowed down with additional witnesses called and more testimony taken through an independent investigation. Instead, Cotter, McBroom, and the rest of the House Republican leadership steamrolled the investigation, got the hearings over in short order, and proceeded immediately to ousting Gamrat and Courser. Only because he quit before they could do so was Courser spared the indignity of being frog-marched out of the Capitol Building.
This explosive new development shows how important the efforts Democrats took during their Select Committee hearings were. While even their own supporters were castigating them for extending the process, House Democrats kept their eye on ensuring that a full and independent investigation was completed before the issue was put to bed.
House Democratic Leader Tim Greimel issued a statement today regarding this. “In light of the serious nature of today’s whistleblower lawsuit filed by Keith Allard and Ben Graham in U.S Federal District Court, I am requesting the Michigan State Police and state Attorney General Bill Schuette update the Legislature on their investigation into the Cotter-Courser-Gamrat situation,” he said. “As many people will remember throughout the House’s internal investigation into this matter House Democrats consistently asked and finally were able to secure that the Michigan State Police and the Attorney General conduct an independent investigation. This whistleblower lawsuit brings forward a number of very serious allegations against Speaker Kevin Cotter’s office that warrant a thorough investigation into a potential cover-up after Allard and Graham’s termination. I’m anxious to see how work has been progressing on their investigation. We must ensure that ethical representation remains our top priority as we conduct the official business of the state.”
In a statement released this afternoon, Brandon Dillon, Chair of the Michigan Democratic Party said, “This federal whistleblower complaint points to a massive cover up using threats, intimidation, and taxpayer resources by top Republican officials, including House Speaker Kevin Cotter. The question asked by Democrats – ‘What did the Speaker know and when did he know it?’ – has finally been answered, and the answer is that they knew from the very beginning.
“House Republican leadership at the highest levels, and the Speaker himself, were intimately involved in orchestrating a cover-up of an abuse of taxpayer resources that resulted in the wrongful termination of the whistleblowing staff,” Dillon’s statement continued. “This complaint alleges very troubling and deceptive behavior by top Republicans in the House. If these allegations are true, they are even more serious than the scandal that ultimately forced the resignation and expulsion of Todd Courser and Cindy Gamrat, in the first place.
“Scandals and cover-ups have become a troubling pattern and practice of the way Lansing Republicans conduct business. Republicans and House Speaker Cotter are clearly more concerned with furthering their own political careers than being held accountable to the people of Michigan.”
Progress Michigan is calling for the resignations of both Cotter and Saari. “From the beginning, Progress Michigan has repeatedly called for full disclosure of what Speaker Kevin Cotter knew and when he knew it,” said Eexecutive Director Lonnie Scott. “The allegations raised in the new federal whistleblower lawsuit bring into question Speaker Cotter’s earlier statements about his involvement in the Courser-Gamrat scandal. If these allegations are proven true, it is obvious that Speaker Cotter and his chief of staff Norm Saari put their own personal political gain ahead of the concerns of the people of Michigan. Because they failed to protect employees under their control, failed to rein in two Representatives in their caucus and then withheld vital information from the House during the expulsion hearings, Speaker Cotter and Norm Saari must resign their respective seats immediately.”
Kudos to the House Democrats for their tenacity, even in the face of widespread criticism. When people ask what it is the Democrats are doing when they are in such the minority in both the House and Senate, it’s actions like this that we can point to and which illustrate that they are doing the difficult job we sent them to Lansing to do.