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Trial Starts for Michigan Lawmaker Accused in Union Bribery Case

Dec. 2, 2019, 9:54 PM

A Michigan jury will begin to decide Dec. 3 whether a legislator’s text messages seeking tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from unions was normal politics or whether the requests for workers’ cash veered into illegal bribes.

Federal prosecutors brought criminal charges against Michigan Rep. Larry Inman (R), who’s accused of soliciting bribes to flip votes on a high-profile labor law bill.

The U.S. Department of Justice has accused Inman of allegedly seeking up to $30,000 in cash bribes from unions during a time in 2018 while the Michigan Legislature was deliberating a repeal of the state’s prevailing wage law. That law mandated minimum hourly rates for workers on state-funded construction projects and was favored by unions. Inman is accused of asking for campaign contributions for himself and as many as 11 other Republicans, according to an indictment filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan.

The money didn’t change hands, and Inman joined with fellow Republicans to repeal the law, which had provided wage standards for workers on state-funded construction projects. But the timing, and text messages Inman sent to the labor union asking for the money, led federal prosecutors to bring the case.

In one pre-trial order, presiding U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan Judge Robert Jonker said the job of the jurors is to decide “whether the solicitations at issue here crossed the line between lawful—albeit unseemly—politics as usual, into criminal quid pro quo attempts at extortion or solicitation of bribes.”

“We are hoping for a fair hearing and for the entire story to come out,” Inman’s attorney, Chris Cooke, said in an email.

House Speaker Called as Witness

One key witness in that story is current House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R), who was speaker pro tem when the GOP voted to repeal the prevailing wage law in June 2018. Chatfield sought to quash a subpoena requiring his testimony, but the judge said he must testify, regardless of the Michigan House having scheduled sessions during the trial.

“No” votes from Inman and 11 other Republican House members may have blocked the repeal of the 1965 law, which was a blow to unions. The indictment doesn’t name the other individuals who also may have allegedly sought bribes, but text messages allegedly sent by Inman indicate the other individuals are likely Republicans.

The text messages included in the indictment reference pressure from GOP leadership in the House and from the Tea Party. The repeal was backed by a state contractor group seeking to lower labor costs and was opposed by Democrats and unions.

Chatfield’s spokesman, Gideon D’Assandro, said the House is preparing for possible interruptions if Chatfield is held up in the trial.

Inman’s legal team has defended the text messages as being lawful activity under the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment protections of political speech. Inman has argued the U.S Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision that expanded protections for political donations from corporations and unions means his communications about political contributions are legal.

The case is: United States v. Inman, W.D. Mich., No. 1:19-cr-117, jury trial begins 12/3/19

To contact the reporter on this story: Alex Ebert in Columbus, Ohio at aebert@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Martha Mueller Neff at mmuellerneff@bloomberglaw.com