Lobbyists at bribery trial: Inman's text messages 'inappropriate'

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Grand Rapids — Two longtime lobbyists testified in federal court Wednesday that text messages from state Rep. Larry Inman tying an upcoming vote to a request for campaign contributions crossed the line between right and wrong.

Lobbyists who usually work behind the scenes in Lansing took center stage Wednesday, the second day of Inman's bribery trial in federal court in Grand Rapids, where a jury will decide whether the Williamsburg Republican broke federal laws. 

Two lobbyists who work for multi-client firms — firms that represent a variety of interest groups — criticized Inman's suggestion that groups give $30,000 to cement opposition to a proposal to repeal the state's prevailing wage. The law required contractors to pay union wages and benefits on state-funded construction projects.

"It was an inappropriate text," lobbyist Jim Kirsch testified at one point, referring to a text message that's the focal point of prosecutors' case against Inman. 

Rep. Larry Inman, left, and his attorney, Chris Cooke, answer questions on Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2019, after the second day of Inman's trial in Grand Rapids.

Prosecutors charged Inman in May with attempted extortion, solicitation of a bribe and lying to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The charges stemmed from a 2018 vote to repeal the prevailing wage law. 

Building trades unions opposed repealing the law, and prosecutors allege that Inman attempted to sell his vote on the matter to the unions in exchange for campaign contributions. Inman has said he's innocent and wants to clear his name.

After court proceedings concluded Wednesday, Inman told reporters he wants to work on issues related to medication addiction — something he's admitted struggling with in recent years. Inman's attorney, Chris Cooke, told reporters, "I don't think Rep. Inman acted unethically at all."

Cooke also acknowledged that Inman, who is still serving in the state House, had been offered a plea deal. But Cooke said the offer was not "favorable."

Kirsch, who works for the firm Kelley Cawthorne, and Noah Smith, who works for Capitol Services, were two of the five witnesses who testified Wednesday. Both of them lobbied on behalf of the Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters and Millwrights against repealing the prevailing wage. The union had contracts with both firms.

In court Wednesday, the lobbyists described their efforts to get majority Republican lawmakers to join Democrats in opposition to the repeal. They specifically described their interactions with Inman, who they said was worried about a GOP primary challenger if he voted against repeal.

Prosecutors publicly revealed for the first time a March 2018 email from Smith to Lisa Canada, political and legislative director for the carpenters union.

In the email, Smith wrote about a meeting concerning the prevailing wage he had with Inman. During the meeting, according to Smith, Inman mentioned the building trades "giving him $30,000" for his primary campaign.

That number $30,000 is the figure Inman later mentioned in text messages to Canada and Kirsch in the final days before the House's vote to repeal the state's prevailing wage. The lawmaker ended up voting to support the repeal. 

In one message to Canada, 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 in the text, "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."

Tuesday was the day before the House voted on Wednesday, June 6, 2018.

Canada has denied ever saying Inman would get $30,000 from the building trades unions if he voted against repeal.

Prosecutors have suggested the $30,000 figure came from a November 2017 event for Republican lawmakers at the Capital Prime steakhouse in Lansing, in which three labor unions were involved. If each union's political action committee gave the maximum allowed under the law, the contributions would amount to $30,000.

The event, which featured food and drinks for lawmakers, was sponsored by the unions. Smith testified that Inman appeared to be intoxicated at the gathering.

Smith also said it was immediately apparent to him that Inman's text message in June 2018 was "not appropriate."

Canada, who said she first interacted with Inman at the Capital Prime event, took Inman's June text message to law enforcement the day after receiving it, spurring an investigation that led to charges.

But Cooke, Inman's attorney, has asked questions about lobbyists' own handling of the prevailing wage issue.

Cooke, a Traverse City attorney, started the Wednesday hearing by cross-examining Canada, who began her testimony on Tuesday. Cooke asked about $20,000 in campaign contributions Canada's union authorized her to give to Republicans in the weeks before the prevailing wage vote and whether the money was focused on that vote. 

"I reject your premise," Canada responded at one point, adding that the contributions were about the 2018 primary election in August and not specifically about prevailing wage.

"This was for elections," she added.

Cooke also asked about the lobbyists' work with other lawmakers, meals they purchased and information they got out of the lawmakers regarding the status of the prevailing wage vote.

The other Wednesday witnesses were the Federal Bureau of Investigation employee who examined Inman's cellphone and another union official — Dave Fashbaugh, business manager for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers 498.

Fashbaugh's testimony focused on another set of text messages from Inman about the prevailing wage vote. In one message to Fashbaugh, Inman said he would need  "a ton of campaign money."

Fashbaugh said he took Inman's request to others involved with his union. At least one person told him the request was "likely illegal," Fashbaugh said.

Inman's trial is scheduled to continue Thursday, when House Speaker Lee Chatifled, R-Levering, is expected to testify.

Cooke said it's unclear whether Inman himself will take the stand.