- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 9, 2015

LANSING, Mich. (AP) - An apologetic Michigan lawmaker sought leniency Wednesday for a bizarre attempt to cover up his extramarital affair with another socially conservative legislator, asking a wary committee to censure rather than expel him.

“In my heart of hearts, I’m falling on the grace and mercy of the court,” Republican Rep. Todd Courser said during more than 90 minutes of testimony. “You folks have to wrestle with that, and that won’t be an easy task.”

Courser, of Lapeer in the state’s Thumb region, agreed that he committed misconduct and misused public resources. He told the panel his actions were a “tremendous failure” and the “steps of a desperate person.”

Courser, 43, said he wanted to “die” at the time he asked an aide to send a sexually explicit, false email to GOP activists and others in May claiming he was caught having sex with a male prostitute. The tale was an effort to make his affair with Republican Rep. Cindy Gamrat, 42, less believable if it were exposed by an anonymous person sending them both text messages demanding that he resign.

Courser said the email was an attempt to ascertain how the blackmailer knew so much about his and Gamrat’s private lives.

The six-member committee will reconvene Thursday to forward a disciplinary recommendation to the House after hearing two days of testimony this week.

The panel is weighing a recommendation from the House’s top lawyer that Courser be kicked out of the Legislature, which has happened only three times in Michigan history. A censure, which general counsel Brock Swartzle has suggested for Gamrat, would limit her work while letting her stay in the position.

“With such huge examples of failure, misjudgment, character flaws, can you really believe that you remain qualified to serve?” Rep. Ed McBroom, the committee chairman, asked Courser.

Courser responded that the cover-up situation was “incredibly unique,” and not “the totality of who I am.”

In a shift in demeanor, Courser backed away from recent comments on social media in which he called the panel a “kangaroo court,” the House probe a “political hit” and wondered if his former staffers and the GOP “establishment” conspired to bring him down.

Swartzle, who also is Speaker Kevin Cotter’s chief of staff, has described Gamrat as more contrite and more of an accomplice in the cover-up attempt. But McBroom, a Republican from Vulcan in the Upper Peninsula, told reporters he was leaning toward expulsion for both.

“I’m still waiting to hear other people’s perspectives besides my own,” he said.

Some Democratic and Republican members quizzed Courser about Gamrat’s awareness of the cover-up.

“She didn’t see the content or what really had happened” until after the email was sent, Courser said, but she knew “we were putting some plan in motion.”

Gamrat, who testified Tuesday, said she would “humbly” accept a censure.

A censure would allow the House to take away committee assignments, staff and possibly levy a fine with a majority vote. An expulsion would require a two-thirds vote.

After a staffer for Courser and Gamrat was fired, he gave The Detroit News a secret audio recording of Courser demanding that he send the email to “inoculate the herd,” an apparent reference to Courser’s supporters. While the aide refused and the email was likely legal, the plot was unethical, according to a House Business Office investigation that alleged dishonesty and wrongdoing.

The committee listened Wednesday to the 80-minute recording, in which Courser discussed his marital problems, the extortion and his reasoning for sending the email. The reluctant staffer, Ben Graham, told him, “this isn’t going to work.”

At the onset of the hearing, the GOP-led panel sparred over Democrats’ line of questioning for Norm Saari, who was the speaker’s chief of staff until July, shortly after Graham and another aide who jointly worked for Courser and Gamrat were dismissed.

Democrats said the inquiry is relevant to learn why they were dismissed. Republicans cut off the questions and struck Saari’s testimony from the record, citing precedent from a 2001 expulsion.

“It is clear that these proceedings are as scripted as they possibly could be in a poor attempt to cover up how the speaker and his staff mishandled this very unfortunate situation,” said Rep. Frank Liberati, an Allen Park Democrat.

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Follow David Eggert on Twitter: https://twitter.com/DavidEggert00

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Online:

Full House Business Office investigative file: https://1.usa.gov/1Qndgri

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