Former Speaker Lee Chatfield and wife charged with misusing political funds

LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Prosecutors charged the former leader of the Michigan House and his wife with financial crimes Tuesday, alleging they milked political accounts for personal travel, housing and other benefits while the Republican lawmaker was raising millions of dollars from his powerful post.

Lee Chatfield misused various political funds, including his Peninsula Fund, which was not required to report the names of donors and served as an “unregulated slush fund,” Attorney General Dana Nessel said.

The operation was a family affair, as wife Stephanie Chatfield monitored her husband’s credit card balance and paid it off with cash from the Peninsula Fund, including $132,000 over a 14-month period, Nessel said.

In another example, Nessel said Lee Chatfield’s brother cashed a $5,000 check from a political fund in 2020 and returned $3,500 to the lawmaker ahead of a vacation, Nessel said.

Lee Chatfield’s various political funds took in more than $5 million over six years, including more than $2 million in 2020, which was his last year as speaker, the attorney general said.

“To call him, as many have, a prodigious fundraiser would not be an exaggeration,” Nessel said.

Lee Chatfield faces 13 charges, including conducting a criminal enterprise, which carries a maximum prison sentence of 20 years, and embezzlement.

Chatfield’s attorney, Mary Chartier, said she’ll fight the charges “each and every step of the way.”

“It took almost 2 1/2 years for the AG’s office to come up with charges. It’s going to be pretty flimsy if it took that long,” Chartier said.

Stephanie Chatfield was charged with embezzlement. A message seeking comment from her lawyer, Matt Newburg, was not immediately returned.

Nessel said there has been a proliferation of “dark money” political funds. She said the Peninsula Fund was organized under federal law as a tax-exempt “social welfare organization.”

“The Michigan Campaign Finance Act is effectively toothless, useless and utterly worthless as a deterrent to these crimes,” she said.

“The misuse of social welfare funds is not a new practice in Lansing. And while Lee Chatfield may have exploited the system a little bit more than others, no one political party alone has perverted or abused it,” she said.

Separately, there was a renewed call Tuesday to expand financial disclosure laws in Michigan.

“We won’t give up on seeking the type of anti-corruption laws that this state needs that most other states have,” Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat, said. “These charges really underscore the real necessity to more people in Lansing than ever before.”

The Chatfield investigation began in 2022 when his sister-in-law publicly said he had sexually assaulted her. He has denied the allegations and said they had a consensual affair. Investigators eventually expanded the case beyond those claims.

Nessel said there was insufficient evidence to charge Lee Chatfield based on Rebekah Chatfield’s allegations, though she praised her courage in stepping forward.

“Were it not for her we likely wouldn’t be here today,” the attorney general said.

Two people who were top aides to Lee Chatfield when he ran the House were charged last year with crimes, including embezzlement from nonprofit funds created for political purposes. Rob and Anne Minard have pleaded not guilty.

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