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For The Week Of May 19, 2019 Through May 25, 2019

On Inman, Expulsion And Due Process

By Zachary Gorchow
Posted: May 21, 2019 2:18 PM

A lawmaker in trouble with the law. Again. And the situation is vexing a house of the Legislature. Again.

Rep. Larry Inman (R-Williamsburg) was charged last week with three felonies – extortion, solicitation of bribery and lying to the FBI – in an indictment that alleged he tried to sell his vote on a proposal to repeal the prevailing wage law to trade unions trying to convince him to vote no. The U.S. attorney in Grand Rapids, as part of the indictment, included text messages Mr. Inman sent requesting $30,000 in campaign cash for himself and 11 unnamed others to secure their no votes. There is no indication, so far, that the case involves anyone else other than Mr. Inman.

Now House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) confronts what all too many legislative leaders have faced – how to deal with a legislator charged with a crime. And in this case, it's of the most serious nature because it involves conduct in office, not something outside of a legislator's official duties.

Mr. Chatfield has called for Mr. Inman to resign. Mr. Inman has refused. He's also denied the charges, calling them "crazy bullshit" for good measure. He has asserted there is an explanation for the texts. Mr. Chatfield trotted out several other high-ranking House Republicans in the days after the indictment to call for Mr. Inman to resign too. But he hasn't quit yet, and why would he when he's got legal bills aplenty.

The speaker has steadfastly refused to answer questions from reporters on whether he would initiate expulsion proceedings against Mr. Inman if he refuses to quit. If Mr. Inman pleads not guilty and takes his case to trial, it will likely take many months for a verdict to arrive.

Traditionally, legislative leaders have chosen to let the legal process play out before initiating expulsion proceedings.

That's what happened with former Sen. Bert Johnson (D-Highland Park) in 2017. He resigned shortly after his conviction, but not until almost a year elapsed from the time he was charged. The Senate never started the expulsion process. In 1978, the House expelled then-Rep. Monte Geralds after he was convicted of a felony but maintained his innocence and refused to resign, also waiting for the courts.

Sometimes, legislators have exploited this protocol. Former Rep. Keith Stallworth was charged with a pile of felonies in the early 2000s, but maintained his innocence and the House leaders at the time (one of whom was Kwame Kilpatrick, cough, cough) said he had the right to his day in court and did not start a House investigation. Then shortly after leaving the House because of term limits, Mr. Stallworth struck a plea deal, pleaded guilty and avoided prison. Mr. Johnson maintained his innocence too even after damning secret recordings were released by the feds. Former Sen. Virgil Smith hung onto his seat for almost a year before he agreed to a plea deal and resigned.

The other two modern-day expulsions, Sen. David Jaye in 2001 and Rep. Cindy Gamrat in 2015, had little to nothing to do with criminal charges and more to do with their overall conduct as legislators and the general revulsion other members had in having to deal with how they went about their jobs. Ms. Gamrat was charged with a crime after she was expelled, but a judge ruled there was insufficient evidence for her to stand trial. Mr. Jaye was convicted months after his expulsion of a probation violation but acquitted of the assault charge that helped galvanize the move to expel him.

Then there are the situations where a legislator has been charged, maintained their innocence and been exonerated by the courts.

Former Sen. Jim Barcia was charged in 2004 by federal authorities in a campaign finance case and maintained his innocence. Prosecutors dropped the charges 14 months later. A few years later, then-Rep. George Cushingberry Jr. was charged with perjury for making false statements on campaign finance and elections paperwork, but a judge threw out the case following a trial. In both the Barcia and Cushingberry cases, the Senate and House, respectively, waited for the legal process to conclude before considering expulsion. They were exonerated, so they never faced sanctions. Both won re-election.

These two latter examples loom large in any consideration of whether to expel a member before she or he has been convicted of a crime. What if they are never convicted? How would that look?

And yet, to be clear, innocent until proven guilty is the standard when it comes to convicting someone of a crime and taking away their freedom, not service in the Legislature. A two-thirds majority of the House or Senate can expel a member for any reason, as Mr. Jaye and Ms. Gamrat discovered. The House, if it wanted, could simply have the contents of the indictment placed into an expulsion resolution and decide on that basis alone Mr. Inman must go.

Of course, if there is a revelation down the road about the texts that backs up Mr. Inman's claim they've been misunderstood and he's exonerated, the voters of the Grand Traverse County would rightfully wonder what right the House had to unseat its elected representative.

This is the conundrum a legislative leader faces when a fellow legislator finds themselves taking a seat at the defendant's table in court. And it's a big part of the reason why those leaders usually defer acting until the courts do so first.

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