Will they stay or will they go? The House affair.

August 16, 2015

michigan capitol buildingThe Mitten Memo. A blog by Nick Krieger. 

By now, you’ve probably heard about Lansing’s most recent scandal involving state representatives Todd Courser (R-Lapeer) and Cindy Gamrat (R-Plainwell).  Rumors of the extramarital affair between Courser and Gamrat had been circulating since spring.

The story became more salacious earlier this month when The Detroit News released audio recordings of Courser, Gamrat, and legislative staffers discussing the relationship.  Among other things, it became clear that Courser was the author of a bizarre cover-up attempt—an anonymous e-mail in which he accused himself of having gay sex with a male prostitute behind a Lansing nightclub.  Why would Courser concoct such a strange story?  According to the representative, himself, it was an attempt to shift focus away from his real relationship with Gamrat and minimize the expected negative reaction to the affair.  

Last week, things became even more peculiar when Courser claimed that he was being harassed and blackmailed by what he referred to as “the Lansing mafia.”  He alleged that he had received threatening text messages from an unidentified blackmailer and that he had fallen prey to “clandestine operations to control public officials.”  Courser’s brother claimed that he, too, had received texts from the unnamed blackmailer.  Most of Courser’s statements have been made via the Internet and social media, including his campaign website and personal Facebook page.  

Unlike Courser, Gamrat initially remained silent about the relationship; but she broke her silence at a Friday afternoon press conference.  Visibly shaken and contrite, Gamrat apologized for her actions and for bringing disrepute upon the Michigan Legislature.  Nevertheless, she stopped short of naming Courser, stated that she had not participated in the cover-up, and claimed that she had not broken any laws.

Speaker of the Michigan House of Representatives Kevin Cotter (R-Mount Pleasant) has confirmed that the House Business Office is investigating Courser and Gamrat to determine whether they acted illegally, breached the public trust, or misused any tax dollars in directing their staffers to hide the affair.  It is unlikely that the House will take any disciplinary action against Courser or Gamrat until the internal investigation is complete.

Once the investigation is finished, however, the House of Representatives will have the option to expel Courser, Gamrat, or both.  And at this point, expulsion appears to be a very real possibility.

The Michigan Constitution provides that either house of the Michigan Legislature may expel one of its members by a two-thirds vote of the members elected and serving.

What are the reasons for which a legislator may be expelled?  The Michigan Constitution does not say.  Instead, the constitution provides only that the particular ground for a member’s expulsion must be recorded in the Legislature’s official journal.

Despite this lack of specificity, it is well settled that the Michigan Constitution permits either house of the Legislature to remove a member for any reason, provided that the reason is sufficient in the judgment of two-thirds of the members serving.

Only two members have been expelled in the history of the Michigan Legislature:  Representative Monte Geralds (D-Madison Heights) and Senator David Jaye (R-Washington Township).

Geralds, an attorney, had been convicted of embezzling money from one of his clients, wealthy Bloomfield Hills heiress Geraldine Patria.  Geralds argued that the crime did not warrant expulsion because it was committed in the course of the private practice of law and did not directly relate to his legislative office.  In April 1978, Speaker of the House Bobby Crim (D-Davison) asked Attorney General Frank Kelley whether there were sufficient grounds to expel Geralds under the state constitution.  In response, Kelley opined that “the members of the House of Representatives have plenary, or full and complete, jurisdiction to determine [whether] expulsion proceedings are in order.”  On May 10, 1978, the House of Representatives voted 84-20 to expel Geralds from the body.  In separate proceedings, Geralds’s license to practice law was suspended for three years.

In early May 2001, Senate Majority Leader Dan DeGrow (R-Port Huron) explained that he had introduced a resolution seeking to expel Jaye from the Michigan Senate.  DeGrow noted that Jaye had shouted at senate staffers, engaged in questionable hiring practices, driven with a suspended license, stored sexually explicit photographs on his senate-owned computer, and repeatedly assaulted his fiancée in public.  In addition, Jaye had amassed three drunk-driving convictions.  On May 24, 2001, the Michigan Senate voted 33-2 to expel Jaye from the body.

Neither Courser nor Gamrat has been convicted of any crime.  However, a criminal conviction is not required before the House of Representatives may proceed to expel one of its members.  As noted above, the state constitution does not restrict the power of expulsion to any particular set of circumstances.  On the contrary, it allows either house to expel a member for any reason so long as two-thirds of the members agree.

Further, even in the absence of a conviction, both Courser and Gamrat have publicly admitted to engaging in felonious conduct.  In Michigan, adultery remains a felony, punishable by up to four years in prison.  Adultery is defined as “the sexual intercourse of 2 persons, either of whom is married to a third person.”  Courser and Gamrat are both married, and not to each other.

Although Michigan’s adultery statute is rarely enforced, adulterous relationships continue to carry collateral consequences.  In 2012, for example, prominent Oakland County lawyer Henry Baskin was disciplined for various instances of professional misconduct.  Among other things, the Attorney Grievance Commission charged Baskin with breaching the Michigan Rules of Professional Conduct by committing the felony of adultery.  Thus, even though Baskin was never charged criminally, he was still subjected to possible noncriminal penalties for his adulterous relationship.

Only time will tell if Courser, Gamrat, or both will face expulsion from the Michigan House of Representatives.  The internal investigation is not yet complete.  Moreover, any legislator facing expulsion must be given notice, a hearing, and a meaningful opportunity to respond.  Therefore, the process could drag on for weeks or even months.

Perhaps the House will determine that Courser’s and Gamrat’s public admissions of adultery are enough to warrant expulsion, even without felony convictions.  Or perhaps, like Jaye, the legislators will be disciplined on the basis of the cumulative effect of their misdeeds.  Either way, it is clear that the Michigan Legislature has been tarnished by this affair and subsequent cover-up.

When it comes to policing the conduct of its members and preserving its own dignity, the House of Representatives has the final say under Michigan law.  Assuming that Courser and Gamrat do not resign, there will be increased pressure on the House leadership to institute disciplinary proceedings.  While a run-of-the-mill affair between colleagues might be considered forgivable, woe to the state official who uses tax money or public employees to conceal personal wrongdoing.  If the internal investigation turns up misconduct of this sort, the House will be all but compelled to oust the culprits.

Nick Krieger is a graduate of Ludington High School, earned a bachelor’s degree from Michigan State University, and holds a law degree and master’s degree from Wayne State University Law School.  Nick works as an attorney for the Michigan Court of Appeals and owns a home in Ludington. The viewpoints expressed in The Mitten Memo are Nick’s own, and do not reflect the views of the Michigan Court of Appeals or Media Group 31, LLC and its affiliates: Mason County Press, Manistee County Press and Oceana County Press.  Contact Nick via e-mail at nickkrieger77@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter at @nckrieger.

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