Jury acquits Larry Inman of lying to FBI; mistrial on other counts

Rep. Larry Inman is accused of attempting to sell his June 2018 vote on a controversial prevailing wage repeal initiative to a union group that opposed the measure. Prosecutors contend Inman ended up supporting repeal because the union did not provide or facilitate campaign contributions he had requested for himself and colleagues. (Bridge file photo by Riley Beggin)

GRAND RAPIDS – Michigan state Rep. Larry Inman walked out of a federal courthouse and into fresh snow here on Tuesday night as a free man.

But his long, strange legal saga may not be over yet. 

A jury of 12 residents found Inman not guilty of lying to the FBI during an August 2018 interview. And U.S. District Court Judge Robert Jonker declared a mistrial on extortion and bribery charges after the jury failed to reach consensus on those counts during 12 hours of deliberation over two days. 

"I feel very good," Inman, a Traverse City-area Republican, told reporters outside the Gerald R. Ford federal building in downtown Grand Rapids.  "I’m relieved that hopefully this is over and I can get back to my life."

But the mistrial on two counts means Inman remains accused of attempting to sell his June 2018 vote on a controversial prevailing wage repeal initiative to a union group that opposed the measure in exchange for campaign contributions. And conditions of his initial release on bond, including travel restrictions, remain in place.

Federal prosecutors immediately asked Jonker to set a date for a potential second trial on the extortion and bribery charges, which carry maximum penalties of 20 and 10 years in prison, respectively. Assistant U.S. Attorney Chris O'Connor declined to comment on the case Tuesday as he left the courtroom.

The jury read its verdict on the lying charge about 6:10 p.m. after Jonker had asked them to deliberate an additional 45 minutes in an attempt to try and break a deadlock on the other counts in a case they began considering Monday afternoon. 

Inman spent the suspenseful interim in the hallway directly outside the sixth-floor courtroom, talking to his attorney and periodically peaking back inside for signs of the jury's imminent return. He later nodded to the jury after his aquital on the lying charge, which had carried a maximum penalty of five years behind bars.

"There's certainly lots of dispute about what to make of the factual record" in the case and "inferences" that can be drawn from the evidence, Jonker told attorneys when the jury first alerted him to their deadlock. 

Deliberations were "intense," juror Timothy Hegedus told Bridge Magazine as he left the courthouse late Tuesday. "It was aggressive at some points, but it was more intense than I was anticipating," he said.

Hegedus, a 24-year-old student at Grand Valley State University, declined to discuss his position on the extortion and bribery charges but said he did not think there was enough evidence to convict Inman of lying to the FBI. 

"It was just one person's word versus the other," he said, describing conflicting testimony from Inman and Special Agent Jeremy Ashcroft about an initial FBI interview. "There was no written record of the FBI interrogation. There was nothing to proof check."

Inman, who sought treatment for an opioid addiction after he was indicted in mid-May, told reporters he is looking forward to returning to the Michigan Legislature after missing session during the week-long trial. 

He said he intends to ask House Speaker Lee Chatfield to restore access to his office in Lansing and reassign him to committees. In testimony last week, Chatfield said he removed Inman from the House Appropriations Committee, which decides state budgets, "to ensure the public would have trust in how we were spending the money."

"I'm an innocent man," Inman said Tuesday night. "I told the truth, and I want to go back and represent the residents of Grand Traverse County, because that's what I was elected to do."

The case focused on two nearly identical text messages Inman sent to a Michigan Regional Carpenters and Millwrights official and lobbyist three days before the vote to repeal prevailing wage, which had guaranteed union-level wages and benefits for workers on state-funded construction projects like schools and government buildings. 

"We all need some more help!" Inman texted, seeming to urge campaign contributions for Republican legislators like himself who were considering whether to break with GOP leaders to block the prevailing wage initiative and send it to the general election ballot for voters to decide. "People will not go down for $5,000, not that we dont appreciate it."

The Grand Rapids trial tested the legal limits of campaign contribution solicitations by lawmakers, which are not criminal unless the donations are sought in exchange for an official act, such as a vote. Testimony also shined a light on the boozy underbelly of Lansing politics -- including "educational" dinners paid for by special interest groups and campaign checks hand-delivered by lobbyists -- that state lawmakers navigate but the public rarely sees.  

Jonker called it a "tough case" and applauded attorneys on both sides for attempting to define the difference between illegal solicitations of political action committees and "business as usual" in Lansing, "however unseemly it might seem."

In his 12 years on the federal bench, Jonker said he had presided over only one other hung jury.

During the trial, jurors heard competing and conflicting descriptions of Inman, a 65-year-old lawmaker known beyond politics for his fascination with Amelia Earhart and collection of memorabilia related to the long-lost aviation pioneer.

Federal prosecutors portrayed Inman as a craven politician focused more on campaign finances for re-election than public policy in Lansing.  But Inman's defense attorney described him as a dedicated public servant trying to navigate a flawed system while struggling with an opioid addiction that clouded his judgment and ability to clearly communicate.  

Throughout the trial, prosecutors used a large projector to show jurors text messages Inman sent to colleagues, staff and unions, including the two critical messages to the Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters and Millwrights that appeared to show Inman recommending $30,000 in campaign contributions.

Lisa Canada, a union official who received one of the texts, did not line up more campaign contributions for Inman. Instead, she shared his message with Michigan State Police two days before the vote, prompting a federal investigation. In testimony last week, Canada said she was "shocked" when she received the text and "angry" because she assumed that turning it into law enforcement would kill the union's chance to protect prevailing wage.

Inman first discussed campaign contributions with Canada after a November 2017 presentation on prevailing wage at the Capital Prime steakhouse in Lansing, she said. Canada acknolwedged she likely told the lawmaker the carpenters PAC would "max out" by donating $10,000 to his campaign but testified that she did not discuss the possibility of similar contributions from two other trade unions at the dinner.

Lobbyist Noah Smith testified that Inman mentioned $30,000 during a March 2018 meeting at a coffee shop across the street from his House office. But jurors never saw the email in which Smith relayed that conversation to Canada. Or how Canada responded: "Can't speak for the others," she told Smith, apparently referencing the Operating Engineers and Michigan Laborers unions. "Not sure about 30 to be honest but they both told me that they were sending him a contribution equal to ours. I guess they didn't. Ugh..." 

Inman took a risk by declining a plea deal ahead of trial. And he took another risk when he opted to take the stand Friday and Monday to testify in his own defense. The three-term lawmaker, who won re-election by fewer than 400 votes last fall, described his long running reliance on painkillers prescribed after a series of surgeries for foot, abdominal and back issues. 

And he told jurors he did not remember sending the text messages to the carpenters union, saying he was surprised to later find them on his phone. The campaign cash solicitations "didn't even sound like me" and were full of "ranting and raving," Inman testified. 

In closing arguments Monday, lead prosecutor Chris O'Connor accused Inman of "repeatedly lying" about the text messages. Special Agent Ashcroft testified that Inman denied sending them during his initial interview with the FBI. But less than two months earlier, in a June 2018 phone call recorded by the FBI and played for jurors, Inman appeared to openly discuss the message to Canada and told her he regreted sending it.

"The only way you find him not guilty of all these offenses is if you believe him," O'Connor told jurors Monday.

Defense attorney Chris Cooke spent the closing days of the trial toting a Nike shoebox full of prescription painkillers he said Inman had been hoarding for years. The lawmaker said he was taking Norco “by the handful” at one point, according to a staffer, who testified that Inman's addiction appeared to reach its peak a half year after the prevailing wage vote. 

When he finally checked into rehab last year following his mid-May indictment, Inman told doctors he was seeking help because of his legal issues, a point prosecutors used to paint his addiction as an after-the-fact excuse. But Inman said the charges forced him to confront his addiction.

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

Cooke used his closing arguments to rip what he called a "failed" case by the prosecution, arguing it amounted to little more than two text messages that could be misinterpreted. Other text message evidence and testimony were merely "supposition,” he said.

"If my client was an extortionist, if he was trying to solicit a bribe and this was his big opportunity to cash in on the prevailing wage vote, wouldn't there be a lot more information on his phone than that?" Cooke said Monday. "I submit to you, there is simply no evidence of any quid pro quo." 

Speaking with reporters Tuesday night, Cooke said he hopes federal prosecutors will not cause Inman "any more pain" by pursuing a second trial on the extortion and bribery charges. 

"It's been a nightmare for him," Cooke said. “He stood in there and told his story.”

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Comments

Whoa
Wed, 12/11/2019 - 9:47am

Inman "said he intends to ask House Speaker Lee Chatfield to restore access to his office in Lansing and reassign him to committees. In testimony last week, Chatfield said he removed Inman from the House Appropriations Committee, which decides state budgets, 'to ensure the public would have trust in how we were spending the money.'
'I'm an innocent man,' Inman said Tuesday night. 'I told the truth, and I want to go back and represent the residents of Grand Traverse County, because that's what I was elected to do.'
….
Inman's defense attorney described him as a dedicated public servant trying to navigate a flawed system while struggling with an opioid addiction that clouded his judgment and ability to clearly communicate."
Wow, let's hope Chatfield is sober and uses better judgement by not restoring privileges to Inman. Inman is entrusted by us to spend our money with sobriety. As a Christian person of faith, I'm so sad that truth and morals don't matter anymore. Our country is being led by unscrupulous charlatans and good people need to vote them out, if not punish them for breaking the laws.

Northern Michig...
Wed, 12/11/2019 - 12:19pm

He doesn't remember sending the text message but included in the message was "I did not send this". I can't believe this guy got away with it. I guess you are stuck with him now Lee. Would be very interested in hearing from the voters in his district. I guess you have to hold your noses for the next year until you can vote him out.

Al Churchill
Wed, 12/11/2019 - 8:49pm

How a jury could leave a judge declaring a mistrial in this case is beyond understanding. The e-mails involved speak for themselves. They leave no doubt concerning guilt. Let's hope the voters in Inman's district are watching. He does no public good.

John Q. Public
Thu, 12/12/2019 - 3:35pm

I find it easy to understand. It appears that half the jurors rejected the ridiculous notion that if you're explicit you're guilty of bribery, but if it's all done with winks and nods it's just good 'ole "fundraising."

middle of the mit
Thu, 12/12/2019 - 9:31pm

Who said anything about half the jurors?

It only takes one juror to do that. AKA Paul Manafort and the one juror that decide that because the CEO of the Bank knew that he was falsifying his financial records, it didn't matter what the President of the Bank knew or rejected.

Also, if we are not allowed to read between the lines, let's say I put the number three on my fingers and then tell someone to read between the lines.

Am I telling them I am flipping them off, or am I telling them they are third place?

Or is it just The candidate for the President of the United States of America telling people at a rally that he would like to call Megyn Kelly a @itch, but for PC purposes, he wouldn't call Megyn Kelly a @itch.

Did the candidate just call Megyn Kelly a @itch, or didn't he?

In America, apparently we can't read between the lines, or understand innuendo.

We are in trouble!

Dick Albright
Fri, 12/20/2019 - 9:56pm

Why would he call Megyn Kelly . . . anything? What did she ever do to him . . . ? (as the saying goes). I sure miss "Motor City" , the grand ole' auto mfg I knew as a kid (from afar). I never bought a car that wasn't "Made In The USA" (with a little metal tag and coach image-Fisher Body). Those days will come again . . . as 'promised' (MMGA! MAGA! MCaGA!)