To campaign finance watchdogs, the word “corruption” may be getting more difficult to legally define — but the case against indicted state Rep. Larry Inman (R-Williamsburg) appears to be a near-textbook example.
At a motion hearing earlier this month, U.S. District Court Western District of Michigan Chief Judge Robert Jonker declined to outright dismiss any of the three charges against Inman. He did, however, move a charge of lying to federal law enforcement forward toward a likely jury trial.
Meanwhile, charges of extortion and attempting to solicit a bribe remain under advisement. Jonker raised questions about what the line between campaign contributions and bribery is in light of Citizens United, the landmark 2010 U.S. Supreme Court case.
Richard Hall, a professor of public policy and political science at the University of Michigan Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, has studied and written about campaign finance law for years. Speaking with the Advance this week, Hall was blunt in his assessment of the text messages allegedly sent by Inman, a northern Michigan lawmaker, to union officials seeking campaign contributions in exchange for a vote against prevailing wage repeal.
“As a student of campaign finance law, I don’t know how this case doesn’t meet the standard of causing the appearance of corruption,” Hall said.
Experts like Hall and Aaron McKean, legal counsel for state and local reform at the Washington, D.C.-based campaign finance group Campaign Legal Center, say that Supreme Court decisions in the last decade have limited the legal definition of corruption.
McKean said Monday, however, that the evidence that’s already publicly available in the Inman case is “at least [at] the starting point of meeting the standard for quid pro quo corruption.”
A variety of text messages included in court records show that in the days leading up to the prevailing wage vote last summer, Inman texted officials with two different trade unions seeking campaign funds and promising a “no” vote on the matter.
McKean said he found the bluntness with which Inman allegedly wrote his text messages to be “shocking.”
Inman was also allegedly seeking funds for 12 other unidentified Republican lawmakers — who he referred to as the “dirty dozen” — who collectively would have been able to block the GOP-pushed repeal. Inman wound up voting to repeal, later texting that he did it to “protect” other lawmakers and that he was now “going to have a shit storm [sic].”
In a phone interview Monday, Inman’s attorney, Chris Cooke, said the Republican needs to have what will likely be a full jury trial for the full set of facts to come out.
“I think once all the facts become clear and we have our full discussion with the jury, then we’ll understand more about what happened with respect to Rep. Inman,” Cooke said. “As far as I’m concerned, when you look at the case law at the state and national level, these several text messages don’t arise to the level of a federal prosecution.”
As the state House prepares to begin its fall session next week, issues like road funding and the Fiscal Year 2020 budget appear to be top-of-mind for lawmakers. It’s unclear whether House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) will move on a tabled resolution formally urging Inman to resign, or whether he might move to take up expulsion hearings.
Craig Mauger, executive director of the nonpartisan Michigan Campaign Finance Network, a Lansing-based, money-in-politics watchdog group, said the case against Inman gets into murky territory regarding the difference between campaign donations and bribes.
“What is the difference between fundraising and raising money in an ethical fashion, and going out there and connecting your fundraising directly to votes you’re going to be taking as a lawmaker?” Mauger said in a phone interview last week, noting that he’s spoken with lawmakers recently who said they believe Inman’s alleged actions were wrong.
“But the fact of the matter is, there is a gray area here,” Mauger said. “What is allowable in this country in terms of political fundraising in 2019 and 2020 might not look the way that some people would like it to look, and it might be that the difference between something that’s illegal and something that’s legal is not as clear cut as one might think it is.”
The University of Michigan’s Hall says it’s been particularly difficult to prosecute bribery in recent years, and pointed to the 2016 U.S. Supreme Court decision that overturned corruption charges against Bob McDonnell, the Republican former governor of Virginia.
In that decision, Chief Justice John Roberts said the Court’s decision was less focused on accusations that McDonnell had received gifts such as a Rolex watch and was instead more focused “with the broader legal implications of the Government’s boundless interpretation of the federal bribery statute.”
Hall said that Supreme Court decisions like the McDonnell case and Citizens United, which allowed for unlimited political giving by corporations and labor unions with some mechanisms to protect against corruption, have made it near impossible to prosecute political corruption cases.
“My own view is that the [Supreme] Court has narrowed the definition of corruption much too tightly,” Hall said. “Basically, you have to have one person saying, ‘I want to bribe you in the following way,’ and the other person saying, ‘It’s a deal.’ [The Court] made such a crabbed view of corruption [in Citizens United] that the only way that you can assert corruption is when two people are basically stupid enough to make it explicit.”