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Michigan House Speaker ordered to testify in Rep. Inman’s corruption trial

Larry Inman

LANSING — Michigan House Speaker Lee Chatfield, one of the most powerful lawmakers in the state, must testify under oath in next week’s corruption trial for embattled state Rep. Larry Inman, a federal judge decided Tuesday. 

Chatfield had sought to quash a subpoena from federal attorneys who are prosecuting Inman, a fellow Republican who is accused of attempting to sell to a union group his vote on an initiative to repeal a prevailing wage law for construction workers. 

The House Speaker, who is not accused of wrongdoing and has called on Inman to resign, had cited legislative immunity and argued that he is needed in Lansing next week to help resolve an ongoing budget impasse with Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. 

But speech and debate protections for state lawmakers do not apply in federal cases, and “the court is satisfied the Speaker’s testimony is important to any jury’s evaluation of the issues” prosecutors may ask Chatfield about, Judge Robert Jonker said in a five-page order. 

“As for logistical concerns, the Court will make every effort to avoid interfering with the Speaker’s legislative duties,” Jonker said. 

He noted the House is not set to convene until 1:30 p.m. next Tuesday and Wednesday and noon on Thursday. Prosecutors have volunteered to call Chatfield for testimony in Grand Rapids on an unspecified day at 8:30 a.m.

A spokesman for Chatfield did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but his attorney said  Chatfield's team has read Jonker’s order and “will abide by it.” Chatfield and other Republicans kicked Inman out of their caucus earlier this year after a grand jury indictment, and the full House approved a resolution urging him to step down. 

Inman, of Wiliamsburg near Traverse City, is fighting charges of attempted extortion, bribery and lying to investigators. He’s pleaded not guilty in the case, which hinges on June 2018 text messages he sent to union officials who opposed the repeal initiative in an apparent attempt to solicit $30,000 in campaign contributions days ahead of the vote.

Chatfield was not yet House Speaker at the time, but prosecutors are expected to ask him about his role with the House Republican Campaign Committee, separate text messages Inman sent him and his assessment of Inman’s mental capacity.

“The testimony the government seeks falls within the privilege that protects state legislators from the compelled disclosure of information relating to the legislative process,” Chatfield attorney John Bursch, a former Michigan solicitor general, told Jonker in a Nov. 19 court filing.

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Forcing Chatfield to attend Inman’s trial would also prevent him from “fulfilling his official duties at a time when critical legislation needs to be acted on and funding deficiencies addressed,” Bursch wrote, referencing the budget dispute between the GOP-led Legislature and Whitmer. 

The House and Senate are both expected to return to session Tuesday through Thursday— coinciding with the first and possibly only week of Inman’s trial — after a fall break that marked the opening of firearm deer hunting season and Thanksgiving. 

Chatfield’s legal counsel had volunteered to authenticate text messages between him and Inman through an affidavit instead of public testimony, according to Bursch. 

But Chatfield is “an important witness” to relevant facts at issue in the case, federal prosecutors said Monday, urging Jonker to allow his testimony at trial.

The prosecution’s case centers on a June 3 text message Inman sent to Lisa Canada of the Michigan Regional of Carpenters and Millwrights urging unions to increase campaign contributions for lawmakers who were prepared to vote against the wage mandate repeal.

In the text, the third-term lawmaker suggested Chatfield (who was already expected to become speaker this term) would retaliate against opposition lawmakers by denying them committee assignments. 

“People will not go down for $5,000, not that we don’t appreciate it,” Inman told Canada in the text. 

“Chatfield’s testimony will help the jury determine whether Inman was getting pressure from him or embellishing as part of an effort to extort money from the Carpenter’s union,” prosecutors Christopher O’Connor and Ronald Stella wrote in a filing for U.S. Attorney Andrew Birge’s office.

Previously disclosed texts show Inman also contacted Chatfield shortly after he decided to join most other Republicans in voting to repeal the prevailing law, a 1965 statute that had guaranteed union rate wages and benefits on government construction projects like school buildings.

“My seat is now at high risk, with no Dem votes I normally get to save my butt,” Inman told Chatfield in a June 6, 2018, message, suggesting opposition might have played well with voters in his moderate district. “Now I need hugh help with Door help and a shit load of money… This vote put me in a shit hole.”

Chatfield was diplomatic in response.

“Like any core Republican principle, Larry… the Dems will oppose what we do and attack us for it,” he told Inman. “When we all go to war this November, we’ll be on the side of our base. We’ll fight them off.”

In that text exchange, Inman noted he and Chatfield were set to meet in person the day after the prevailing wage repeal vote. 

“The government anticipates that the meeting was related to Chatfield’s involvement with the House Republican Campaign Committee, which made decisions on which House races to support with contributions,” prosecutors said Monday.

Inman’s attorney has argued his client’s text messages with Chatfield are irrelevant to the case because they occurred after the vote, but he had suggested Jonker delay the trial in order to consider the arguments. 

“The discussions had after the vote were lawful discussions about the need to obtain monetary support for an upcoming campaign,” defense Attorney Chris Cooke said in a recent filing. “It is not relevant to a ‘quid pro quo’ discussion as the ‘pro quo’ was over.”

Inman sought treatment for a long-running opioid addiction this year, and Cooke has raised the possibility of mounting a “diminished capacity defense.” He’s also facing a potential recall election after activists from his district submitted petition signatures last week. 

Other lawmakers and legislative staff are expected to testify at Inman’s trial, Chatfield’s attorney told Jonker in a recent filing, “and they are in a much better position than the Speaker to testify regarding the Defendant’s mental health.”

Inman ended up joining most Republicans to vote for repealing the prevailing wage law. In subsequent texts to Chatfield, Inman suggested he switched his vote to “save” Rep. Joe Bellino from voter wrath in his swing district by allowing the Monroe Republican to switch from a “yes” to a “no” vote without killing the initiative and angering GOP leadership. 

But the government thinks that “was a false cover story to explain why Inman voted to repeal the law after he failed to obtain money from the union,” prosecutors said Monday, telling Jonker that Bellino will likely testify he was always planning to vote against the initiative.

Prosecutors also dismissed Chatfield’s argument that he is needed in Lansing next week as a “red herring,” noting established protocols for another lawmaker to oversee the House if the Speaker is temporarily away. 

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