One Inman charge moves forward, judge raises questions on bribery case due to Citizens United

Larry Inman and his attorney, Chris Cooke, outside federal court in Grand Rapids, Aug. 9, 2019 | Nick Manes

A federal judge in Grand Rapids Friday declined a motion to dismiss any of the three charges against indicted state Rep. Larry Inman (R-Williamsburg). 

Chief Judge Robert Jonker said a charge of lying to federal law enforcement stands and will move forward to a likely jury trial. Meanwhile, charges of extortion and soliciting a bribe remain under advisement in the case before the U.S. Federal Court for the Western District of Michigan. Jonker said he would likely issue an opinion on the charges in the coming weeks. 

Since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2010 that money equates to protected speech, Jonker, who was appointed to the bench by Republican former President George W. Bush, noted that the case raises new questions about when a campaign contribution could constitute a bribe. 

Inman attorney pushes for dismissal of charges

Inman was indicted in May on allegations that he attempted to sell his vote on a union issue known as prevailing wage that was approved last summer by Republican lawmakers. The Traverse City-area lawmaker, who ultimately voted to repeal the law, is accused of soliciting a bribe from a union official in exchange for a vote against repeal. 

Inman’s attorney Chris Cooke acknowledged in court on Friday that his client may have broken laws, but argued that if he did, the laws were not federal in nature and therefore, the case should be a state matter. 

Larry Inman and his attorney, Chris Cooke, outside federal court in Grand Rapids, Aug. 9, 2019 | Nick Manes

“I think what’s … important is whether or not my client should be facing these charges from a constitutional perspective,” Cooke told reporters following Friday’s hearing. “And I think that this is excessive federal government intervention into what is a state matter.” 

So far, Inman has resisted vocal calls for his resignation and faces a recall effort in his northern Michigan district. Cooke told reporters on Friday that the lawmaker plans to return to work once House sessions resume at the end of the month. 

In an email, Gideon D’Assandro, a spokesman for state House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering), reiterated Chatfield’s calls for Inman’s resignation, but he did not address the question of whether expulsion hearings are possible. Inman has been kicked out of the House Republican Caucus. 

Additional text messages released last week delve deeper into Inman’s thought process on the vote. Those messages were not part of Friday’s hearing, however, as they have not yet been admitted as evidence. 

Court filing: Inman sought contributions from electrical workers union

A matter of precedent

Jonker pointed to three specific areas of concern as he ponders whether to send the other charges forward to be decided by a jury: the federalism argument noted by Cooke, as well as separation of powers and First Amendment issues, as the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the 2010 Citizens United case that political contributions are a form of free speech. 

The judge told attorneys that the text message evidence presented in the indictment in which Inman allegedly sought campaign contributions in exchange for votes from himself and 12 other unidentified lawmakers is something that “makes every citizen’s stomach churn.” 

However, he said he wants to better “understand the limits of the government’s theory,” noting that “legislators solicit donations every day.” 

Inman pleads ‘not guilty’ to bribery charges

U.S. Attorney Christopher O’Connor, one of the prosecutors on the case, said Inman’s alleged actions make for a “quintessential bribe.” 

Jonker and attorneys for both sides, however, struggled to point to any established case law that would serve as a precedent to address the First Amendment issues in the wake of the Citizens United ruling. 

Jonker gave both sides more time to file supplemental briefs related to the First Amendment issues.

Michael Naughton, the attorney representing citizens trying to recall Rep. Larry Inman | Nick Manes

Michael Naughton, an attorney representing the recall petition filers, acknowledged that the case has the potential to set a future precedent. 

“This is interesting because the judge is looking at the contours of the First Amendment,” Naughton told reporters following Friday’s hearing. 

“And I think something he’s going to look for the parties to address is how far does that go,” Naughton said. “A quid pro quo in law school is this for that. And so can someone give an elected official money for their campaign, and [does] it still constitute a bribe or attempted extortion?”

Naughton noted that the recall effort is related to the fact that Inman has missed every House session since the indictment came down and has cited a diminished mental capacity — related to an opioid addiction for which he’s seeking treatment — as a defense mechanism. 

Inman constituents push for recall

“Today doesn’t really impact [the recall],” Naughton said. “He still has both of those issues hanging above his head and frankly, he hasn’t addressed the people of our community about that.”

Cooke, however, blasted the recall effort, saying that the petition clearly states Inman’s indictment, saying that’s “overwhelmingly prejudicial.” 

Nick Manes
Nick Manes covers West Michigan, business and labor, health care and the safety net. He previously spent six years as a reporter at MiBiz covering commercial real estate, economic development and all manner of public policy at the local and state levels. His byline also has appeared in Route Fifty and The Daily Beast. When not reporting around the state or furiously tweeting, he enjoys spending time with his girlfriend, Krista, biking around his hometown of Grand Rapids and torturing himself rooting for the Detroit Lions.

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