Michigan lawmaker's bribery trial begins with seat at stake

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

The bribery and extortion trial of state Rep. Larry Inman is scheduled to begin Tuesday, and political experts expect a conviction would spur House members to expel him.

In May, federal authorities charged Inman with bribery, attempted extortion and lying to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The charges stemmed from fundraising efforts Inman made allegedly in direct connection to a 2018 vote on a controversial repeal of Michigan's prevailing wage law.

The embattled representative from the Traverse City area denied the allegations in the wake of the indictment in a series of interviews with The Detroit News and other outlets. “In my mind, I did nothing wrong,” Inman told reporters in early September after his first House session since the indictment.

There's no way that Inman, R-Williamsburg, can continue to serve in the House politically if he's convicted, said Bill Ballenger, a former GOP lawmaker and longtime political watcher.

"The amazing thing about this is that nothing has been done so far by the House," Ballenger said of a potential effort to remove Inman.

State Rep. Larry Inman talks to reporters in the Michigan House on Sept. 3, 2019.

Over the last seven months, 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, and he's continued serving in hopes that his trial will clear his name.

Gideon D'Assandro, spokesman for House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, reiterated Monday that the House wants Inman to change his mind, do the "right thing" and "step down."

Asked about Inman's situation, Aneta Kiersnowski, spokeswoman for House Minority Leader Chris Greig, D-Farmington Hills, said Greig had no comment on Inman.

In 2010, Michigan voters approved a constitutional amendment that specifically barred individuals convicted of certain felonies from public employment in policy-making positions. The felonies that fell under the amendment were crimes involving "dishonesty, deceit, fraud or a breach of the public trust."

It falls on the Republican-controlled House to decide whether to enforce the amendment on its members.

On May 14, federal authorities charged Inman with bribery, attempted extortion and lying to the FBI, alleging that he sought $30,000 in campaign money from building trades unions ahead of his vote on whether to repeal the state's prevailing wage.

The prevailing wage law set wage requirements for certain public construction jobs. The policy had heavy support from building trades unions, including the Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters and Millwrights.

“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.

Inman added, "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 money didn't come, and Inman voted to repeal the law.

But Inman has denied legal wrongdoing, and his attorney has argued that Inman's request for campaign money isn't sufficient evidence of a quid pro quo related to the vote.

"I am innocent of these charges," Inman said in a previous statement. "I have never compromised the integrity of my vote on any issue. I have always represented my constituency honestly and legally. I intend on vigorously defending these charges and my reputation."

The trial is scheduled to begin in federal court in Grand Rapids at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday. Chatfield is among the state officials who are expected to testify at some point in the proceedings.

Recall group files challenge

Organizers who gathered nearly 14,000 signatures to recall Inman are challenging the state's decision that 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, according to a statement from the group. 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.

The committee says the error was "harmless" and the invalidation of the 13,859 petition signatures “denies the citizens their constitutional right to a recall process.”

"This decision to halt the recall has profound practical consequences for recall efforts everywhere in Michigan," the petition’s sponsor Sondra Shaw Hardy said in a statement. "Up to this point, this recall effort has been a fight for the people of the 104th to be represented in Lansing. Now we find we must also fight for all people in Michigan to support our constitutional right to recall."

But the group omitted the word "right" in its petition when describing one of the federal charges against Inman: "Attempted extortion under color of official right."

The omission of the word "right" constituted a difference between the wording initially approved by the Board of State Canvassers this summer and the wording presented to individuals signing the petition this fall, Director of Elections Sally Williams wrote in a Friday letter to the recall group.

"While the omission of one word may seem inconsequential and the rejection of a recall petition on such grounds as excessively technical and harsh, the recall statute does not authorize the bureau to excuse differences between the reasons for recall approved by the board and those printed on the recall petitions," Williams wrote in the letter.

Staff Writer Beth LeBlanc contributed.