Michigan Lawmaker Charged with Seeking Bribe from Carpenters Officials

Larry Inman’s vote apparently was for sale. But what does that say about who was paying? On May 15, Inman, a three-term Republican in the Michigan House of Representatives, was indicted in Grand Rapids federal court for attempted extortion, solicitation of a bribe, and lying to the FBI related to his seeking cash payments from a Carpenters union affiliate in exchange for a favorable vote on a prevailing wage bill. He is declaring his innocence, but has an uphill climb. House Speaker Lee Chatfield, also a Republican, wants him to resign. And Mike Jackson, executive secretary for the Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters and Millwrights, is glad Inman “is being brought to justice.” Yet the details are far from completely known. Inman pleaded not guilty at his arraignment on May 28. And the union may have ulterior motives.

Organized labor long has supported the federal Davis-Bacon Act of 1931 and equivalent state laws which mandate that government contractors pay prevailing wages to their employees. On a practical level, a “prevailing” wage means a union-scale wage. These laws effectively raise the cost of construction projects and send taxpayers the bill. Unions, ever vigilant in protecting their interests, know which lawmakers are on their side and which ones aren’t. Michigan last year was a flashpoint. An ad hoc group, Protecting Michigan Taxpayers, had circulated a petition to repeal the Prevailing Wages on State Projects Law of 1965 and secured the necessary minimum number of signatures to put the proposal before the legislature. On June 6, the Republican-majority House and Senate voted for the measure by respective margins of 56-53 and 23-14. As the bill did not require the signature of then-Governor Rick Snyder (the measure would have been placed on the November ballot in lieu of passage), it took immediate effect.

Rep. Larry Inman, a retired banker whose district encompasses Traverse City and the surrounding area, was a late holdout on this measure. But in the end, he supported it. Construction unions, especially the Carpenters, promptly targeted him for election defeat in November. They didn’t succeed, but it was not for want of trying. Inman defeated his Democratic challenger, but by a margin of less than one percentage point. Now, having been indicted and removed from his own party’s caucus, he’s facing expulsion. “Guess what? They’re really not happy with me,” he said 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 chance is to bounce me out of the Michigan House.”

Exactly how did Inman get into this predicament? According to the indictment, starting on or about June 3, 2018, during the closing days of debate, he’d sent a series of text messages in which he appeared to solicit cash contributions from Carpenters lobbyists in return for a vote to retain the prevailing wage law. Inman wrote in one text (as corrected in this article for grammatical, spelling and punctuation errors): “I am not sure you can hold 12 people for the only help of $5,000…People will not go down for $5,000, not that we don’t appreciate it.” In another text, he stated:

We need some more help! Carpenters have been good to me. Where are the rest of the trades on checks? We only have 12 people to block it. [Person A] said all 12 will get $30,000 each to help their campaigns that did not happen. We will get a ton of pressure on that vote [Person B and Person C] will go to the longest neck hold on this one. I have heard most got $5,000, not $30,000. It’s not worth losing assignment and staff for $5,000 in the end. They will give you the check back. I am not sure you can hold 12 people for only $5,000. My suggestion is you need to get people maxed out.

He closed each text message with the statement, “We never had this discussion.”

The union allegedly did not respond to Inman’s requests for money. And Inman, in a last-minute decision, and much to the union’s chagrin, voted with the Republican majority for repeal. One year later, having been indicted, stripped of committee memberships and rebuked by House Speaker Chatfield, he faces expulsion and imprisonment. A liberal group, Progress Michigan, sees a target-rich environment. The organization is calling upon Republican leaders to find out the identities of other GOP lawmakers who may have accepted bribes. Director Lonnie Scott said, “It’s important to know the full scope of this scandal.”

Rep. Inman adamantly denies all wrongdoing. “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,’” he said. “That never occurred.” As for hard evidence that he solicited bribes, he remarked: “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 didn’t really come from me.” By contrast, Carpenters Regional Secretary-Treasurer Mike Jackson, demanding Inman’s resignation, stated, “Our members deserve elected officials who vote on the merits of a bill, and how it will affect us as taxpayers and hardworking people.”

Inman’s assertions aside, there are aspects of this case that suggest the union’s hands are less than clean. For one thing, the Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters and Millwrights had invested serious money in Inman’s potential support for the prevailing wage bill. During October 2017-May 2018, the council contributed $6,000 to his re-election campaign committee in hopes that he would vote the union way and corral support from other House Republicans. In other words, the union’s donations may have been legal, but they were geared toward exerting influence over his vote. Second, the FBI probe into Inman’s alleged bribery solicitations didn’t happen until after well after the votes of June 6. If the union was so morally offended by Inman’s behavior, why didn’t it report the texts as soon as they were sent? Vindictiveness over having lost on a key issue, rather than a desire for public accountability, would seem to be its primary motive.

Michigan, with its long history of trade unionism, has been moving toward maximizing liberty for employers and non-joining workers these past several years. In December 2012, the legislature enacted separate Right to Work laws for the private and public sector that bar unions from forcing nonunion employees to pay dues as a condition for keeping their jobs; as Union Corruption Update noted at the time, the state’s labor organizations and supportive lawmakers took these actions very badly. The failure of unions to prevent the repeal of the prevailing wage law is yet another bitter pill to swallow. The new governor, Gretchen Whitmer, is a pro-union Democrat, but that won’t be enough to undo these measures as long as Republicans hold a majority in the House and Senate. With or without a conviction of Larry Inman – he faces up to 20 years in prison on the bribery solicitation charge alone – unions have made clear their intent to punish legislators who fail to pay their political IOUs.

Postscript: On December 10, 2019, a trial jury cleared Rep. Inman of the charge of lying to FBI agents and could not reach a verdict on the more serious counts of bribery solicitation and attempted extortion. Prosecutors said that they would seek a retrial on the hung jury charges.