- Associated Press - Thursday, August 13, 2015

LANSING, Mich. (AP) - The former top aide to Republican House Speaker Kevin Cotter denied any wrongdoing Thursday and said his boss acted “extraordinarily appropriately” in response to an extramarital affair between two other conservative lawmakers, one of whom is set to break her weeklong silence.

Norm Saari, whose recent appointment to the Michigan Public Service Commission was the subject of a legislative advice-and-consent hearing, drew criticism from a Democratic senator who accused him of overlooking or ignoring whether Reps. Todd Courser of Lapeer and Cindy Gamrat of Plainwell misused public funds in an attempt to hide their relationship nearly three months ago.

Saari, citing an ongoing House investigation, declined to comment to senators but told reporters afterward he did nothing wrong and neither did Cotter.

“The speaker acted extraordinarily appropriately,” he said.

In mid-May, a legislative aide told Saari about the affair between the two legislators he jointly worked for under an unusual arrangement. The staffer also reported Courser’s orchestration of a fictional email sent to Republicans and reporters suggesting he had sex with a male prostitute to tamp down attention from his real relationship with Gamrat.

At Cotter’s direction, the House Business Office is investigating whether the married lawmakers - who have kids and are among the Legislature’s most outspoken social conservatives - misused state resources to conceal their relationship and, in July, fired staffers unwilling to participate in the botched cover-up after giving them raises.

Courser apologized Monday in an audio statement but said he would not resign, saying he devised the email under intense pressure after a blackmailer sent text messages demanding that he resign or the affair would be exposed. Gamrat plans to speak publicly for the first time Friday at an East Lansing law firm representing her.

The GOP-led Senate Energy and Technology committee voted 6-1 to endorse Saari’s six-year appointment by Republican Gov. Rick Snyder to the commission, which regulates energy and telecommunications services. Saari began the job last week and once was a longtime lobbyist for Consumers Energy, one of Michigan’s two dominant utilities, before working as an aide in the Legislature and Snyder’s office.

Sen. David Knezek, D-Dearborn Heights, opposed the nomination, saying there are unanswered questions about what Saari knew of “serious allegations” and why Gamrat and Courser were allowed to fire their staffers.

“I would have taken those allegations far more seriously than what it appears the speaker of the House did at this time,” he said. The panel’s other Democratic senator abstained.

Saari told reporters he missed no red flags and 300 House legislative staffers are at-will employees who are hired and fired by lawmakers - their immediate supervisors - while the speaker’s office approves final paperwork.

Cotter’s spokesman has said Cotter knew nothing of allegations of misused resources until The Detroit News broke the story last week, citing secret audio recordings and texts provided by staffer Ben Graham, as well as interviews with Graham and other staffers. The newspaper documented at least one meeting at Gamrat’s official office in which she, Courser and Graham discussed the affair, and that Courser missed a committee meeting during that time.

In his advice-and-consent hearing, Saari said he has no financial interests in Consumers Energy - where he worked for more than 30 years - including no pension, retiree health care or life insurance.

Two citizens testified against Saari’s appointment because of his utility ties and said a consumer advocate/watchdog is needed on the three-member board that sets utility rates.

The GOP-controlled Legislature this fall is expected to update Michigan’s energy law and could give the commission a bigger say in determining how future energy needs are met.

Noting that the commission implements legislative policy, Saari declined to outline his personal stances on renewable energy and energy-efficiency requirements, competition in the electricity market and the Obama administration’s new greenhouse gas rule.


Follow David Eggert at https://twitter.com/DavidEggert00

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