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Judge raises 'serious questions' about new trial for Inman

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

A federal judge has "serious questions" about whether federal prosecutors could successfully convict a Michigan Republican lawmaker if they were to retry him on bribery and extortion charges.

Michigan's Western District Judge Robert Jonker on Friday questioned "whether the evidence in this case is sufficient to sustain a conviction" on charges that state Rep. Larry Inman, R-Williamsburg, solicited a bribe and attempted to extort a union lobbyist. 

Jonker asked prosecutors and Inman's defense team to submit arguments within the next few weeks about whether the Traverse City area legislator should be tried again.

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.

In December, a jury found Inman not guilty of lying to the Federal Bureau of Investigation but couldn't reach unanimous verdicts on charges of attempted extortion and solicitation of a bribe. Federal prosecutors alleged Inman tried to sell his 2018 vote on repealing the state's prevailing wage law, which set pay standards for state-funded construction projects, to unions that opposed repeal.

After the trial, Inman said, "I am an innocent man. I told the truth."

In January, the U.S. Attorney's office said it planned to refile the charges, which the lawmaker has disputed. 

In January Jonker questioned whether a new trial would have a chilling effect on political candidates who have a constitutional right to raise money for their campaigns. He appeared to repeat those reservations in a Friday scheduling order. 

"...this case presented two competing narratives between an inartful, yet permissible, effort of obtaining campaign dollars on the one hand, and impermissble attempted extortion and solicitation of a bribe on the other," he wrote.

Before ruling on whether prosecutors could proceed with a new trial, Jonker ordered Inman's defense to submit arguments no later than Aug. 7 and the government no later than Aug. 21. 

Inman remains hopeful that the court will dismiss the case and called the continued revocation of Inman's staff and offices by House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, "very upsetting," his lawyer Chris Cooke said. 

"Where does the presumption of innocence come in for him?” Cooke said. "We’re very upset about the way he’s being treated right now by the majority leadership. He’s being punished without being convicted of anything.”

The extortion charge carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and a maximum fine of $250,000. The bribery charge carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.

Prosecutors' have zeroed in on text messages Inman sent to lobbyists for the Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters and Millwrights on June 3, 2018.

In one message to Lisa Canada, political director for the carpenters union, Inman referenced other Republican lawmakers: "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, "People will not go down for $5,000, not that we don't appreciate it ... 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."

eleblanc@detroitnews.com

Staff Writer Craig Mauger contributed