Indicted lawmaker: Charges are union effort to 'bounce me out of the Michigan House'
Lansing — A Michigan lawmaker indicted on allegations that he tried to sell his vote in exchange for political contributions from a union is alleging the charges stem from the union’s anger over his eventual support of controversial legislation last June.
Rep. Larry Inman, R-Traverse City, said his vote with the Republican majority to approve the controversial prevailing wage repeal was a last-minute decision, influenced by his constituents’ support for the effort that many construction unions vehemently opposed.
“Guess what? They’re not really happy with me,” Inman said Thursday of the Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters and Millwrights. “They spent a half-million dollars trying to unseat me, and I won. Now their last choice is to bounce me out of the Michigan House.”
The union declined to comment Thursday, citing ongoing investigations.
A day after news broke of Inman’s indictment, the Northern Michigan lawmaker took several press interviews in his Lansing office overlooking the state Capitol where his colleagues were caucusing on no-fault auto reform legislation.
Surrounded by photos of past legislatures, county commissions and Amelia Earhart collectors’ paraphernalia, Inman said he was “devastated” by the charges but wanted to share his side of the story.
"I'm a man of integrity, honesty and trust, and I've been that way my whole life," Inman said.
House Speaker Lee Chatfield asked Inman to resign Wednesday, hours after a federal indictment was filed against the Traverse City lawmaker on charges of bribery, extortion and lying to the FBI. Chatfield removed him from all committees and tasked the House Business Office with managing Inman's Lansing office.
Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's office on Thursday called the news of Inman's charges "very disturbing" but noted that "there is a process that has to play out."
"However, this is something we will be watching very closely," Whitmer spokeswoman Tiffany Brown said.
Inman said he has no plans to resign and called the charges “bull(expletive)” allegations that sully his decades of public service. But he said he understood the reason for his removal from committees, including an appropriations subcommittee that handled the budget for the Michigan State Police.
“I can’t be in charge of the State Police for God’s sake with a charge like this,” Inman said.
Inman's charges carry a maximum sentence of up to 20 years in prison. He'll be arraigned May 29.
A grand jury indictment handed down Tuesday and filed Wednesday in Grand Rapids federal court includes text messages allegedly from Inman that show him seeking campaign contributions from the carpenters and millwrights union, which opposed the legislation.
“Carpenters have been good to me, where are the rest of the trades on checks?” Inman said in a June 3 text to an unnamed union representative, according to the indictment from the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Western District of Michigan.
“We only have 12, people to block it. You said all 12 will get $30,000 each to help there (sic) campaigns. That did not happen, we will get a ton of pressure on this vote.”
The Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters and Millwrights had donated $6,000 to Inman’s campaign committee between October 2017 and May 2018 but did not make any additional donations after his initial June 3 text message, per the indictment.
Inman ended up voting to repeal the law, which had guaranteed union wages and benefits for workers on government-funded construction projects. The Republican-led House approved the measure in a narrow 56-53 vote.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation has no proof to support its allegations, Inman said, because he believes, for the charges to stick, authorities must prove he intended to woo other lawmakers to his cause.
“I did not talk to one representative on this deal, and they can’t produce, as far as I know, one representative that I had a conversation with on my side that I said 'Vote yes and we can get you a check,'” Inman said. “That never occurred.”
Of the alleged payout for his own vote implied in the texts, Inman said. “There’s always another side to a story. The explanation of those texts will come out, and there is a rationale behind those that in essence really didn’t come from me.”
He said the union representative he was communicating with is a “big girl” and should have confronted him directly about his texts if she was uncomfortable with them.
Inman said he’s always loved the trade unions, but said he struggled with the conflicting negative view of prevailing wage expressed by industry and constituents in his district.
He said he returned a $4,000 check to the Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters and Millwrights early on in the prevailing wage debate when he realized his constituents may have conflicting opinions on the issue. He expects proof of such to come out in discovery.
The carpenters and millwrights union said Wednesday that the union was glad Inman was "being brought to justice" but declined to further comment Thursday.
"Our members deserve elected officials who vote on the merits of a bill, and how it will affect us as taxpayers and hardworking people," the union's executive secretary-treasurer Mike Jackson said Wednesday.
Rep. Larry Inman, indicted on bribery charges Wednesday, answers questions about the allegations against him. Beth LeBlanc, The Detroit News
The prevailing wage vote
There were other factors influencing Inman’s June vote, he said.
Inman was largely against any Legislative intervention in the ballot initiatives that cropped up in 2018, despite his votes to adopt the prevailing wage repeal, the minimum wage initiative and paid sick leave effort. “Things changed” as then-Speaker Tom Leonard signaled support for adopting the initiatives, Inman said.
When asked about leadership pressure to support the prevailing wage repeal, Inman said he would have to review the text language included in the indictment that indicated lawmakers could lose committee assignments.
“On every tough vote, the speaker expects the caucus to go with the speaker,” Inman said. “The speaker has a lot of authority, he can take away your office, your staff, your parking spot, take away your ability to come into the House of Representatives, and you have to vote in the balcony with your thumb up and down.”
Nonetheless, as the House was preparing to vote to repeal prevailing wage last June, Inman was undecided and leaning toward voting no. But he knew his colleague, Rep. Joe Bellino, R-Monroe, was in a “vulnerable district” and could lose popularity if he voted for the prevailing wage repeal.
Inman said he changed his vote to be in favor of repealing prevailing wage at the last minute, freeing up Bellino to vote no while still ensuring a majority supported the bill's passage. Inman denied ever discussing the reasoning with Bellino.
Bellino countered Inman's narrative Thursday, vowing that he had always opposed the repeal of the prevailing wage law and never spoke with Inman about the issue.
“I have never wavered in my support of Michigan’s prevailing wage law," Bellino said. "From the day I was elected, I knew this issue might come up, and my answer on how I would vote never changed. I was a ‘no’ on the question of repeal from Day One, and that is what I told anyone who ever asked."
Inman was contacted by the FBI later that summer about his vote on the prevailing wage repeal. The last time he spoke with officials was two to three months ago, he said.
Calls for resignation
Inman described Chatfield’s call for him to resign as "an option that he is required to explain to me,” but he doesn’t plan to give up his seat any time soon. He intends to return to session next week.
He hopes his case will be resolved over the Legislature’s in district work session the summer.
“I didn’t do anything wrong,” Inman said. “In my opinion, resigning sends a signal to the public that I am guilty.”
Inman has supported past efforts to extend public records laws to the Legislature, but on Thursday, he stopped short of extending the law to legislators’ cell phones.
Inman said his case “establishes something new” and serves as a lesson regarding how text messages can be “misinterpreted.”
“I think that’s the lesson learned: If you’re going to have communication with a lobbyist, have it one-on-one rather than by text,” Inman said.
Chatfield on Thursday refused to discuss the possibility of Inman’s expulsion but re-iterated that he has already asked Inman to resign and will give him some time to reconsider.
“He will have a couple of days to make that decision because I think he needs to re-evaluate his position and where he is at,” Chatfield said. “However, as speaker of the House, I thought it was my duty to meet with him and share with him how out of line and inappropriate those text messages were allegedly that he sent.”
Michigan House Speaker Lee Chatfield says indicted Rep. Larry Inman should resign but refuses to say if expulsion is an option. May 16, 2019. Jonathan Oosting, Detroit News Lansing Bureau
Staff Writer Jonathan Oosting contributed.