House speaker asks court to rescind subpoena in indicted lawmaker's trial

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Michigan House Speaker Lee Chatfield wants out of a federal subpoena in the bribery trial of colleague and fellow Republican Rep. Larry Inman. 

Chatfield and three other GOP state lawmakers were subpoenaed last week for the upcoming trial of Inman, who is charged with bribery, extortion and lying to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The charges stemmed from a 2018 vote on whether to repeal the state's prevailing wage, which set wage standards for certain public construction projects.

New Speaker of the House Lee Chatfield R-Levering, speaks to the media in Lansing in this Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2019 file photo.

In a motion filed Tuesday, Chatfield’s lawyer argued the speaker is protected from subpoena by laws that protect legislators from “compelled disclosure of information relating to the legislative process.” Inman was considered a swing vote in the House on the issue.

The Levering Republican’s appearance during the Dec. 3-5 trial also would pull him away from official duties at the Capitol “at a time when critical legislation needs to be acted on and funding deficiencies addressed," the motion said.

“There is a compelling need to protect legislator communications in the context of defending a vote on a bill,” attorney John Bursch wrote in the motion to quash Chatfield’s subpoena. .

Inman allegedly sent a representative for one building trades union a text message suggesting $5,000 in campaign contributions would not be enough for lawmakers to risk losing committee assignments if they voted against the repeal legislation supported by Republican leadership.

Inman has denied the charges and, after a few weeks in rehabilitation for opioid addiction treatment, returned to the House floor despite calls for his resignation from Chatfield and other House lawmakers. 

Other witnesses in the trial include Rep. Joe Bellino, R-Monroe; Rep. Gary Howell, R-North Branch, and Rep. Steve Marino, R-Harrison Township. The list included Dan Pero, who served as chief of staff of former Speaker Tom Leonard, R-DeWitt.

Inman has said he changed his stance on repealing the prevailing wage at the last minute in 2018, freeing up Bellino to vote no while still ensuring a majority supported the bill's passage. Howell and Marino both voted against repealing the prevailing wage, but the House approved the repeal.

According to the Tuesday filing, Chatfield was expected to testify regarding Inman’s mental capacity, his need for money and the authenticity of texts between Chatfield and Inman. 

In the texts, Inman claims to have voted yes on the repeal of the prevailing wage law to spare Bellino, who faced possible repercussions in the November election. Inman told Chatfield in the texts that the vote put him “in a shithole” and made him the “#1 target seat” in his own race that year.

Chatfield responded that the reaction was what was expected when standing for “any core Republican principle.”

“…the Dems will oppose what we do and attack us for it. When we all go to war this November, we’ll be on the side of our base. We’ll fight them off,” Chatfield wrote.  

Inman's lawyer, Chris Cooke, also listed Chatfield as a potential witness, but he said it was largely for cross-examination purposes if Chatfield is used by prosecution. 

"It was more of an idea that should these initial communications be entered on to the record, we’d want Mr. Chatfield to explain the context of those messages," Cooke said.

The validity of those texts could be confirmed by affidavit, Bursch wrote, and other lawmakers and staff members were better suited to testify about Inman’s mental capacity and need for money. 

The federal government should be cautious when using the power of subpoena to scrutinize the legislative process, wrote Bursch, a former Michigan solicitor general. 

“If federal courts should be cautious about policing good government, they should be even more cautious when compelling state legislators — and especially the presiding officer of a legislative chamber during session — who are not being prosecuted to testify in such actions,” he said.