Lawmaker to union official: 'I need money' for tough vote

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
Rep. Larry Inman, R-Traverse City, discusses his recent indictment on bribery charges inside his Lansing office.

Lansing — Newly revealed text messages show embattled state Rep. Larry Inman sought “a ton of campaign money” from union groups as he considered voting against a controversial 2018 measure to repeal the state’s prevailing wage law.

The Traverse City-area Republican, now facing trial on extortion and bribery charges, told a union official he would need help with his upcoming re-election campaign if he voted "no" on the initiative, because “the R Party will be all over my ass.”

Inman is accused of attempting to sell his vote to the Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters and Millwrights, a case built on a series of text messages disclosed in May as part of an original grand jury indictment.

He’s denied the claims and pleaded not guilty to all charges. Inman’s attorney has raised the possibility of using a “diminished cognitive ability” defense related to an opioid addiction for which the lawmaker is being treated.

Federal prosecutors on Thursday asked U.S. District Judge Robert Jonker for permission to introduce additional texts Inman sent to a local official with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

The new texts will give jurors the “compete story” by showing Inman believed he would face a “hotly contested” re-election race that fall and intended to “leverage his vote to unlawfully obtain money from as many of the other trades as possible,” U.S. Attorney Andrew Birge’s office said in a filing.

Inman ended up voting for the initiative and won re-election to a third term by just 349 votes over Democratic challenger Dan O’Neil.

In one of the newly revealed messages, Inman told IBEW Local 498 business manager David Fashbaugh that the nonunion group pushing the initiative — the Associated Builders & Contractors of Michigan — was “all over me” in the run-up to the 2018 vote.

“If I take the vote no to send it to the ballot, I am going to need a lot of help and a ton of campaign money,” Inman said in the June 1 text.

Fashbaugh asked Inman for a “number” and told him he’d see what he could do.  

“It will have to come from all the trade unions associations,” Inman responded. “They told me $30,000. I got $5,000. :)”

Fashbaugh told Inman he’d “try” and would let him know by the following Monday.

“Thanks, we are barely keeping 12 no votes to kill it, but people are going threw hell,” Inman replied.

Carpenters union legislative and political director Lisa Canada “has the 12 names of the dirty dozen, but the R party will be all over my ass,” he wrote. “Me I need money, and then help with votes! Larry”

Fashbaugh told Inman the electricians union could mostly provide “boots on the ground” for his re-election campaign. “I know if you support us, we will support you,” he said.

Inman’s attorney Chris Cooke said he’s seeking to introduce into the court record additional text messages that could provide further context for various exchanges between Inman and union groups.

“The whole story has not been told,” Cooke said. “Rep. Inman was not in violation of the federal law when he’s trying to communicate with people who have contributed to his campaign in the past, trying to raise campaign funds.”

Cook added: “That’s a consistent need that every politician has going into a campaign. It’s not improper for someone to request support for a campaign.”

Inman vehemently denied criminal accusations in a May 16 interview with The Detroit News, criticizing what he called a union effort to “bounce me out of the Michigan House.

The third-term lawmaker said his case “establishes something new” and serves as a lesson regarding how text messages can be “misinterpreted.”

“I think that’s the lesson learned: If you’re going to have communication with a lobbyist, have it one-on-one rather than by text,” he said at the time.

The newly revealed texts are similar to messages Inman sent carpenters union officials on June 3 and June 5 of 2018, in which he also suggested the trades had promised $30,000 in campaign contributions to an unspecified group of 12 lawmakers who could band together to block the initiative.

Inman eventually bucked unions and voted for the measure, helping it clear the Republican-led Legislature despite opposition from GOP Gov. Rick Snyder, who did not have veto authority because the legislation had been initiated by petition drive. 

The initiative repealed a long-standing law that had guaranteed union-level wages and benefits for workers on construction projects that involve government funding.

Inman has not returned to work since the May indictment, resisting calls to resign from top Republicans in his own caucus, including House Speaker Lee Chatfield of Levering.

The state Board of Canvassers on Thursday approved the form for a recall petition that voters in his district hope to circulate in hopes of forcing Inman out of office. They will need to collect roughly 12,000 signatures in 60 days to force the issue.

Inman had been set to stand trial next week, but Judge Jonker recently agreed to delay the case while federal prosecutors seek additional medical documentation from the state lawmaker and decide whether to pursue a court-ordered mental examination.

In Thursday’s filing, the federal government said the electricians union text message exchange is “inextricably intertwined” with Inman’s alleged extortion of the carpenters union.

“The admission of the June 1 text messages may be damaging to Inman’s position — they appear to show a concerted effort to extort money from any trade union willing to pay for a “No” vote — but this does not render them inadmissible,” prosecutors wrote.

Fashbaugh, the IBEW Local 498 business manager, did not immediately respond to a voicemail seeking comment on his 2018 text message exchange with Inman.