Lobbyist 'shocked' by Inman's text seeking large donation
Grand Rapids — A longtime Lansing lobbyist testified Tuesday that she interpreted a text message at the center of charges against state Rep. Larry Inman as a request for "as much money as we could give him."
"I was shocked," Lisa Canada, political director for the Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters and Millwrights, said of the June 3, 2018, message from Inman. "And I was angry."
Canada testified in Grand Rapids federal court on Tuesday, the opening day of Inman's trial. Prosecutors have charged Inman, a third-term House member, with attempted extortion, solicitation of a bribe and lying to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The charges involve a 2018 vote to repeal Michigan's prevailing wage, which set pay standards for state-funded construction projects.
But Inman's attorney, Chris Cooke, argued in court that authorities don't have the evidence to back up their allegations.
"You're not going to find it," Cooke said of purported proof Inman pursued a "quid pro quo" in exchange for his vote.
Inman ended up voting for the repeal of the prevailing wage law. Building trade unions that work on construction projects, such as the Carpenters and Millwrights, sought to protect the statute, but it is no longer law.
For much of Tuesday's five-hour proceedings, Inman remained expressionless in the courtroom. He sat back in his chair and shook his head at one point while Assistant U.S. Attorney Ronald Stella alleged Inman lied to authorities about text messages pressing for contributions.
Judge Robert Jonker predicted Tuesday that Inman's trial would last until early next week. It's a trial that will feature testimony from state lawmakers and multiple lobbyists and is expected to shed light on how policy is made in Lansing.
Prosecutors alleged Inman attempted to sell his vote for campaign contributions from the unions.
Much of the focus Tuesday was on a June 3, 2018, text message Inman sent to Canada, who was working to block the prevailing wage repeal by persuading enough majority Republican lawmakers to vote with minority Democrats.
In the message, Inman referenced other Republicans: "We only have 12 people to block it. You said all 12 will get $30,000 each to help there (sic) campaigns ... I have heard most got $5,000, not $30,000."
He added, "I would suggest maxing out on all 12, or at least doubling what you have given them on Tuesday, asap, we never had this discussion."
Canada didn't respond to Inman's message but instead took it to her boss, she testified. They decided to inform the Michigan State Police, which referred the matter to the FBI.
"I felt like this was going to ruin it for us," Canada testified, referring to Inman's text message and the looming vote on prevailing wage.
Later that week, the Michigan House voted 56-53 on June 6, 2018, to repeal the law with Inman supporting repeal.
During her testimony, Canada and prosecutors connected Inman's specific reference to $30,000 to a November 2017 dinner for a group of Republican lawmakers at a Lansing area restaurant called Capital Prime. Inman attended the event.
Three buildings trades unions were present at the event — the Michigan Laborers, the Operating Engineers and the carpenters, Canada said.
Under Michigan law, a political action committee could give only $10,000 to a state House candidate's campaign in 2018. If the three unions' PACs each gave the maximum, that would be $30,000.
"I would not have put it like that," Canada testified about Inman stating in the text message that 12 lawmakers would get $30,000 for opposing prevailing wage repeal.
The FBI eventually worked with Canada and recorded a phone call she made to Inman later in June 2018. The phone call was played Tuesday in court.
During the call, Canada specifically asked Inman if he would have opposed repeal had the building trades "come up" with $30,000.
"I can't judge it today," Inman responded at one point during the call.
During Tuesday's proceedings, the jury was selected, both sides gave opening statements and Canada began testifying. She will be cross-examined by Inman's attorney on Wednesday.
Cooke, Inman's attorney, suggested Tuesday that Inman's use of prescription pain medication could be part of his defense strategy. Multiple potential jurors who worked in the health care field were asked about their thoughts on opioid addiction.
Inman returned to the House in early September after missing session days following his May indictment and said he had completed treatment for an opioid addiction. He said he went through five weeks of detoxification and six weeks of in-patient treatment that saved his life.
Inman said he got addicted to painkillers after undergoing five separate surgeries in 2017 and 2018.
After the trial ended Tuesday afternoon, Inman stood by his attorney as he answered questions from reporters. Before departing, Inman joked about carrying his attorney's box of paperwork.
In the wake of the federal indictment, Michigan House Republicans have kicked Inman out of their caucus meetings, and he's faced calls to resign from both sides of the aisle. But there hasn't been a vote to expel him from the House. He's continued serving in hopes that his trial will clear his name.
Organizers had gathered nearly 14,000 signatures in a bid to recall Inman, but the state Elections Bureau threw out the signatures because of a missing word in the petition.
The Inman Recall Committee asked the Michigan Court of Appeals Monday to grant the group emergency relief so it could proceed with plans for a recall election. The committee asked the court to require the state Bureau of Elections to begin validating signatures ahead of a Jan. 10 deadline to ensure the recall election would be on the March 2020 ballot.
Federal prosecutors revealed in court Tuesday that they plan to call two current state lawmakers — Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, and Rep. Joe Bellino, R-Monroe — as well as former Rep. Robert VerHeulen, R-Walker, and Dan Pero, former chief of staff to former Speaker Tom Leonard, as witnesses.