- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 17, 2016

LANSING, Mich. (AP) - House employees, including the top aide for Republican Speaker Kevin Cotter, can be called to testify in the probable cause hearings of former Michigan lawmakers who were forced from office in a sex scandal, a judge ruled Tuesday.

The preliminary examinations for Todd Courser and Cindy Gamrat are scheduled for next week. The two are accused of crimes related to an effort to cover up their extramarital affair in 2015, either by using publicly paid staff or lying to investigators. They also face charges they that told staff to forge their signatures on legislation.

Courser and Gamrat have said Cotter forced them from office for political reasons.

Lansing District Judge Hugh Clarke Jr. agreed to let state attorneys and the defendants’ lawyers question House Clerk Gary Randall, House Business Office Director Tim Bowlin, deputy business director Doug Simon - who presided as clerk for a House panel that recommended the legislators’ expulsion - and financial operations director Deborah Wroubel.

He also ordered attorneys to quickly agree on rules for the testimony of Cotter chief of staff and House general counsel Brock Swartzle and GOP legal counsel Hassan Beydoun, rejecting arguments that they are shielded under the speech and debate clause of the Michigan Constitution.

Clarke said the lawyers and other House staff willingly spoke with criminal investigators after Gamrat was expelled and Courser resigned, and they cannot now exercise legislative immunity in court proceedings. He cautioned Courser and Gamrat’s attorneys, though, that “this is not going to be a general fishing expedition.”

Courser has admitted to devising a sexually explicit phony email that said he had been caught having sex with a male prostitute behind a Lansing nightclub. He explained that he thought his tale would make the affair less plausible if it was revealed by an anonymous extortionist who - acting at the behest of Gamrat’s husband Joe, according to a state police investigation - sent him and Gamrat text messages demanding that they resign.

It is unclear if Cotter himself will be forced to testify at the May 25-26 hearing, which will determine if there is enough evidence to proceed to trial.

Clarke previously ruled that Cotter could be asked 15 questions by the defendants in his chambers, and the judge would then decide if he may be called to the stand. But Ingham County Circuit Judge James Jamo said last week that Clarke should limit the closed-door in camera hearing to determine the relevancy of the questions and if they could be answered by other witnesses.

Gamrat, who is from Allegan County, was expelled by the House in September, while Courser of Lapeer County resigned rather than be kicked out. Courser faces up to 15 years in prison for perjury and misconduct in office. Gamrat faces up to five years for official misconduct.

A county prosecutor declined to pursue charges in connection with the alleged extortion by Gamrat’s husband.

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Follow David Eggert on Twitter at https://twitter.com/DavidEggert00 . His work can be found at https://bigstory.ap.org/author/david-eggert


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