Judge: Michigan House speaker must testify in lawmaker's bribery trial

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, will have to testify in Rep. Larry Inman's bribery trial, a federal judge said in a decision released Tuesday.

Citing scheduling conflicts and legal protections for legislators, Chatfield's attorney had argued that prosecutors should not be able to subpoena him to testify in the trial, which is scheduled to begin next week.

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

But federal Judge Robert Jonker rejected Chatfield's motion. Jonker wrote that he's "satisfied the speaker’s testimony is important to any jury’s evaluation of the issues."

He also rejected the idea that there was privilege granted to state lawmakers that would keep them from testifying in a case like Inman's.

Inman, a third-term Republican lawmaker from Williamsburg, is accused of bribery, extortion and lying to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The charges stem from a 2018 vote to repeal Michigan's prevailing wage law, which set wage standards for certain public construction projects. In advance of the vote, Inman attempted to solicit campaign money from building trades unions that supported the law.

Federal prosecutors said in a court filing this week that Chatfield, who was speaker pro tem at the time of the prevailing wage vote, was an "important witness" in the case. Inman exchanged text messages with Chatfield about the vote and mentioned pressure from GOP leadership in a text exchange with a lobbyist, according to court filings.

"Chatfield’s testimony provides necessary context to help the jury determine whether Inman solicited additional campaign contributions from the carpenters’ union in exchange for a 'No' vote on repealing prevailing wage," prosecutors wrote in a Monday filing.

Chatfield's attorney had argued that forcing Chatfield to testify in the trial "would prevent the speaker from fulfilling his official duties at a time when critical legislation needs to be acted on and funding deficiencies addressed." The House is scheduled to be in session Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday next week. Inman's trial is scheduled to begin Tuesday.

Jonker rejected the idea the scheduling conflicts would be a significant problem, noting that House session starts at noon or 1:30 p.m. depending on the day and trial days will end by 2 p.m. each day.

"As for logistical concerns, the court will make every effort to avoid interfering with the speaker’s legislative duties," Jonker wrote. "And the government has made it clear it intends to do the same."

Chatfield spokesman Gideon D'Assandro declined to comment on the judge's opinion.