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Inman took a dozen pills a day, aide says he was "losing it," Chatfield testifies at day 3 of trial

Max Johnston
Interlochen Public Radio
State Rep. Larry Inman walks out of federal court after the third day of his criminal trial.

State Rep. Larry Inman is in federal court this week facing charges of extortion, soliciting a bribe and lying to the F.B.I. He is accused of trying to sell a "no" vote on Michigan's prevailing wage law to a trade union last year.

The third day of testimony featured 7 witnesses, including current and former legislators, a federal agent and the Speaker of the Michigan House of Representatives.

Chatfield takes the stand

Speaker of the Michigan House Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) was called to the stand Thursday by federal prosecutors. Chatfield was elected to the house with Inman in 2014, and spent the bulk of his testimony on his impressions of Inman around the time of the vote on Michigan's prevailing wage law in the summer of 2018. Chatfield and most other republicans in the house supported a "Yes" vote on prevailing wage.

Inman's defense claims his vote on the issue wasn't swayed by cash, but by fear of reprisal from the Speaker and other republican leadership. In text messages, Inman claimed that going against his party by voting "no" would put him at odds with the Speaker.

"It's not worth losing assignments and staff for $5,000," one text from Inman to a lobbyist reads.

Credit Michigan House of Representatives
Rep. Lee Chatfield (R-Levering)

Chatfield disputed that theory in his testimony. He said he wasn't putting any undue pressure on Inman to vote his way, and said no one lost assignments or staff based on the prevailing wage vote. Afterwards, Inman texted Chatfield that he was worried about the fallout from his vote, and was still strapped for cash.

"I am #1 target seat," Inman texted Chatfield. "Now I need (huge) help ... and s*** load of money."

"'Help' means money?" prosecutor Chris O'Conner asked Chatfield in testimony Thursday.

"Yes," Chatfield replied. 

Chatfield says nothing about his conversations with Inman seemed illegal or unethical, but that representatives know the line between what's legal and not when soliciting campaign contributions.

"It's a commonly known rule that you don't link legislation to finances," Chatfield said.

After Inman was indicted, he admitted to Chatfield that campaign finance did come up when he texted lobbyists before the vote, although Inman insisted he wasn't soliciting a bribe from them. Chatfield then removed Inman from his committee assignment, revoked access to his office in the capitol and sponsored a resolution urging the representative to resign.

Chatfield said he took those actions to restore the public's trust in the House, and that Inman's behavior was "unbecoming of a legislator."

Other legislators testify

Credit Michigan House of Representatives
Rep. Joe Bellino (R-Monroe)

The prosecution says Inman changed his vote on prevailing wage from a "no" to a "yes" after the Michigan Regional Council of Carpenter's and Millwrights didn't write a check to his re-election campaign.

Inman claims he changed his vote to appease the speaker and to help out State Rep. Joe Bellino (R-Monroe) who was facing political pressure in his district to vote "yes."

Bellino testified in court Thursday and said that never happened. He insisted he was always a "no" vote, and nothing Inman did would have changed that. 

Dan Pero, a retired Cheif of Staff to the former Speaker of the House Tom Leonard, wanted Inman to vote "yes" on prevailing wage like most other republicans.

In text messages between the two, Inman worried about how that vote would affect future campaign contributions from trade unions.

"I have a very tight general election, with only $30,000 in my campaign account," Inman texted Pero, according to evidence shown in court.

"I'm telling him he's picking the wrong friends," Pero said at the time, while adding that he never saw any members of the republican leadership threatening Inman over the issue. 

Inman's state of mind

Much of Cooke's cross-examination of Thursday's witnesses centered on their impressions of Inman's behavior. Cooke insists that Inman, who sought treatment for opioid abuse over the summer, wasn't in the state of mind to intentionally solicit a bribe. 

Cooke said that Inman was taking 12 to 14 opioid pills a day while using a fentanyl patch for pain management after abdominal surgery. Inman's Legislative Aide Trey Hines testified that over the course of 2018 the lawmaker began taking more painkillers and became more erratic and forgetful. 

"It seemed like he was, I guess you'd say 'losing it,'" Hines recalled.

Pero also called Inman "wacky and unreliable," while Bellino, who identified himself as a recovering alcoholic, said Inman appeared to be a "functional alcoholic."

"I thought he was different," Bellino said during his testimony.

The prosecution asserted that this wasn't abnormal behavior for the lawmaker, who had a reputation amongst other lawmakers for being eccentric.

Federal agent takes the stand

Testimony from F.B.I. Special Agent Jeremy Ashcroft ended the day. Ashcroft began investigating Inman after he was contacted by the Michigan Regional Council of Carpenter's and Millwrights. Eventually, Ashcroft got a warrant for the contents of Inman's phone and interviewed him several times over the next few months about fundraising for his campaign.

Ashcroft testified that during an interview with Inman in December of 2018, Inman said he never offered to sell his vote to the carpenter's union but realized they didn't look good.

"[Inman] realized after reviewing them it appeared he was pressuring the carpenters for money," Ashcroft said.

During the interview, Ashcroft said Inman seemed very lucid and coherent, and didn't suspect he was on any drugs. Ashcroft's testimony is expected to wrap up Friday, while 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.