'It's always about the money': Larry Inman bribery case goes to jurors

State Rep. Larry Inman, left, and his attorney, Chris Cooke, address the media outside federal court in Grand Rapids last week.  His trial for bribery has shed light on how lines in campaign contributions and voting in Lansing can often become blurry. (Bridge photo by Jonathan Oosting)

GRAND RAPIDS – An innocent man railroaded by federal authorities over two text messages or a corrupt politician so desperate for campaign donations he was willing to sell his vote?

Jurors in the bribery case of state Rep. Larry Inman were presented with dueling portrayals of the three-term Republican lawmaker during closing arguments Monday in his bribery and extortion case.

The Traverse City-area legislator is accused of selling his June 2018 vote on an initiative to repeal the state's prevailing wage mandate for construction workers in exchange for a campaign contribution from a trade union that opposed the measure –  and then joining most Republicans to repeal the law when the union did not make additional donations. 

Inman’s attorney urged jurors not to “weaponize” the two texts at the heart of the case. Defense attorney Chris Cooke said the prosecution’s case relies on “supposition” and circumstantial evidence.“

"We’ve proved Larry Inman is an innocent man ensnared in a government trap,” Cooke said. 

Federal prosecutors portrayed Inman as an incumbent lawmaker fixated on sluggish re-election fundraising who repeatedly discussed his need for campaign contributions in the days immediately before and after the prevailing wage vote. 

“It’s always about the money,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Chris O’Connor told jurors. 

O’Connor argued that Inman exaggerated the amount of pressure he was facing from GOP leadership before the prevailing wage vote in order to gin up his solicitation for campaign contributions from the Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters and Millwrights. 

"We all need more help!" Inman wrote three days before the vote in text messages to Lisa Canada, the union’s legislative and political director, and lobbyist Jim Kirsch. "People will not go down for $5,000, not that we dont appreciate it."

O’Connor told jurors that Inman also “repeatedly lied” during an August 2018 FBI interview when he denied sending the text to Canada — and then testified last week that he didn’t even remember sending it — even though he had acknowledged the same message in a June 2018 phone call with Canada that the FBI had secretly recorded. 

“He was following his own instructions: ‘We never had this discussion,’” O’Connor said, echoing the line Inman had used to end his text messages to Canada and Kirsch. 

Before the case went to jurors, Inman took the stand for the second time Monday, continuing testimony about opioid use that his attorney contends clouded the lawmaker’s judgement and caused memory lapses.

When Inman sought treatment after his mid-May indictment, he told doctors it was because of his legal problems. 

“It takes a tragic event for an addict to face what they’ve been doing,” Inman testified. “I recognized I had a significant problem.”

The indictment forced him to “confess” he had been taking more pain medication than his doctors had prescribed, Inman said. His attorney suggested he’d “hoarded” pills he had been prescribed since at least 2014. 

Two of Inman’s former doctors, now both retired, took the stand Monday to detail Inman's long history with pain killers that he was prescribed after a series of surgeries for foot, back, abdominal and other issues. 

Prosecutors acknowledged Inman’s pain issues and prescriptions, but they told jurors not to buy the “excuse” that Inman had been unaware of what he was doing or that it was illegal. 

O’Connor showed Inman a series of unrelated texts he sent the same day as his messages to Canada and Kirsch seeking campaign contributions. 

“What’s so gibberish about all of these?” O’Connor asked, referencing Inman’s testimony from Friday, when he had denied remembering sending the texts.        

Inman initially told the FBI he had not solicited campaign contributions or texted union officials ahead of the vote, but he later called the lead investigator to acknowledge he had found the text messages on his phone.

The texts "didn't even sound like me" and were full of "ranting and raving," Inman testified Friday, according to Gongwer subscription news service. He said he is "an innocent man," he said.

Inman's legislative director Trey Hines testified Thursday that he grew increasingly worried about his boss' dependence on painkillers following a January 2018 surgery. The lawmaker started taking naps in his office after session, would forget things and had trouble maintaining focus, Hines said.

Inman told him he was taking Norco opioids "by the handful" and eventually wore a fentanyl patch, Hines testified.

But staffers and medical experts testified that Inman’s opioid problem appeared to be at its worst several months after the prevailing wage vote  and his FBI interview — not before them. And colleagues, including House Speaker Lee Chatfield, said they had not seen signs that Inman was incapable of doing his job or was making irrational decisions. 

Inman’s use of painkillers had “nothing to do” with the texts he sent Canada and Kirsch or the lies he told the FBI, O’Connor argued. 

Nothing in those messages or others he sent that day suggest he was “confused,” he said. 

Jurors stared at O’Connor as he made his final arguments while facing them. Large versions of the text messages from the case were projected on a large wall behind him. 

Cooke used a prop in his closing argument, holding up a Nike shoebox full of prescription pain killers that Inman had kept. 

“It was a perfect storm for Larry Inman to have this poison in his system” and to have the pressure of the prevailing wage vote, Cooke told jurors. 

“We shouldn’t convict a man of three federal felonies for two text messages.”

Inman faces up to 20 years in prison for the most serious charge of attempted extortion. The case will be decided by 12 jurors, eight men and four women, who began their deliberations at 1:20 p.m.  They deliberated for about 3 1/2 hours Monday without reaching a verdict.

Soliciting a campaign contribution is not a crime in and of itself, U.S. District Court Robert Jonker reminded jurors while delivering a lengthy set of instructions. But proposing a “quid pro quo” by offering an “official act” in exchange for campaign contributions is against the law.

“A vote is an official act,” O’Connor said in his closing argument. “It’s the most official act a legislator has.”

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