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First day of Inman trial shows relationship between legislator, trade union

Rick Pluta

Rep. Larry Inman (R-Williamsburg) appeared in court Tuesday for the first day of his criminal trial. He’s in federal court facing charges of extortion, soliciting a bribe and lying to the FBI.

The day started with jury selection, and then prosecutors called Legislative Director for the Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters and Millwrights Lisa Canada to the stand.

She met Inman at a fundraiser in Lansing in November, 2017. Canada was ramping up her organization’s lobbying efforts to preserve Michigan’s prevailing wage law, which guaranteed contractors were paid a competitive minimum wage on state construction projects.

There was building momentum to repeal the law in the state legislature, but Inman assured her that he was on the union’s side.

“[Prevailing wage] was one of our most important issues,” Canada said in sworn testimony. “[Inman] was supportive and he wanted to vote our way, but he was worried about a primary.”

After their meeting in 2017, the council of carpenters political action committee started writing checks to Inman’s re-election campaign.

Over the course of 2017-18, they gave $2,000 to Inman, according to evidence shown in court. But Canada testified that Inman got more desperate for cash over time.

“He had indicated he was concerned,” Canada said. “He needed to make sure he had enough money to face the primary and make it through.”

Her organization wrote more checks to Inman through 2018, which is legal. Organizations can donate up to $10,000 to a candidate in an election cycle in Michigan.

By the summer of 2018, an effort to repeal Michigan’s prevailing wage law was headed to a tight vote in the Michigan House of Representatives. That’s when Inman sent Canada a text.

“We all 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,” Inman texted, according to the U.S. Department of Justice indictment.

Canada said she was shocked.

“I interpreted it that the representative was asking for more money or [the vote] wasn’t going to go our way,” Canada said.

She didn’t respond to the text and took the message to the Michigan State Police shortly thereafter. Inman ended up voting to repeal the law. Then the F.B.I. got involved. After the vote, they recorded a phone call between Canada and Inman, which was played in court.

In it, he’s apologetic that he didn’t support the law but never directly said that cash would have changed his vote

“If we could have maybe spent more time with these people and gotten them more checks that may have made a difference,” Inman said in the call.

Inman returned a check the Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters wrote him for $4,000, the Union withdrew their endorsement for him and the F.B.I. came knocking on Inman’s door in August 2018.

They took his cellphone records and interviewed him about how the prevailing wage law vote unfolded. Prosecutors say he told the F.B.I. that he never offered to sell his vote. Now he’s charged with lying to a federal agent.

Canada’s testimony will continue Wednesday, when she’s set to also be cross-examined by Inman’s defense attorney Chris Cooke.

He said in early testimony to the court that the Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters has taken part in the effort to remove Inman from office, including donating to their campaign.

Cooke said this shows political bias on the part of one of the prosecution’s key witnesses, but he hasn’t decided if he’ll use that strategy in his cross-examination.

The trial is expected to run into early next week.

Max came to IPR in 2017 as an environmental intern. In 2018, he returned to the station as a reporter and quickly took on leadership roles as Interim News Director and eventually Assignment Editor. Before joining IPR, Max worked as a news director and reporter at Michigan State University's student radio station WDBM. In 2018, he reported on a Title IX dispute with MSU in his story "Prompt, Thorough and Impartial." His work has also been heard on Michigan Radio, WDBM and WKAR in East Lansing and NPR.