Michigan House Republicans introduce ethics reforms amid Chatfield probe


Lansing — Michigan House Republicans proposed Wednesday a series of ethics reforms that respond to controversies surrounding former Speaker Lee Chatfield, who is under investigation by the State Police and  Attorney General Dana Nessel’s office.

The new bills would stop elected officials from paying immediate family members‘ wages out of their campaign accounts and would ban lawmakers from having their travel paid for by lobbyists. The proposals would also prohibit legislators from getting their travel expenses reimbursed through a nonprofit organization.

“I think that recent events have illustrated the need for some campaign finance reform,” state Rep. Beau LaFave, R-Iron Mountain, said of the new proposals.

The bills are House Republicans’ most direct response yet to Chatfield’s actions. He was their caucus leader in 2019 and 2020.

Rep. David Martin, R-Davison, emphasized the bills came during Sunshine Week, an annual event that promotes open government and transparency. But he acknowledged that Chatfield has also been in the news.

“We don’t want that tarnish,” Martin said, adding later, “I want to make sure that we do the right thing in the future.”

In January, Chatfield’s 26-year-old sister-in-law, Rebekah Chatfield, accused the former speaker of sexually abusing her beginning when she was 15 years old. The woman’s attorney, Jamie White, said there were also unspecified financial allegations involving Lee Chatfield, who has not been charged in the matter.

The former Republican lawmaker, who left office at the end of 2020, has said Rebekah Chatfield was 18 when the affair started and has denied any legal wrongdoing. No charges have been filed.

The allegations have led to new scrutiny of the actions of Lee Chatfield, a prolific political fundraiser.

The Detroit News first reported in December that Chatfield’s nonprofit organization, the Peninsula Fund, spent $142,266 on travel and entertainment for public officials in 2020. The fund didn’t have to disclose where the money came from or what the travel expenses were for.

However, Chatfield was known in Lansing for being a frequent traveler. In 2019, he attended a Michigan Beer & Wine Wholesalers Association convention in Puerto Rico, telling a source who spoke on the condition of anonymity that he used a nonprofit account to help fund the trip.

That was one of more than 15 policy-tied ventures Chatfield took over his final four years in the Michigan House, according to a Detroit News investigation, with only four outings being documented in lobbying reports.

A bill introduced by Rep. Ken Borton, R-Gaylord, Wednesday bars lawmakers from accepting trips, travel or lodging paid for by lobbyists. Likewise, the proposal bans legislators from being reimbursed for trips, travel or lodging through a nonprofit organization or business.

A public official who violates the policy must return the money, according to the bill.

While the proposal lacks “significant penalties,” Simon Schuster, executive director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, said it could mark “a sea change” in how money flows outside of public view in Lansing.

“If it’s passed in its current form, it would certainly restrict the way that public officials can have their lifestyles paid for through avenues that avoid public disclosure,” Schuster said.

A separate proposal, sponsored by LaFave, would ban candidates from using political accounts to pay wages to a spouse, parent, brother, sister, son or daughter.

From his first state House campaign in 2014 to when he left the chamber because of term limits at the end of 2020, Chatfield’s political accounts reported paying family members more than $100,000 for “wages,” according to campaign finance disclosures.

Chatfield’s committees paid one of his brothers, Aaron, $49,946 in “wages.” His committees paid another brother, Paul, $49,015 for “wages” from 2014 through January 2021.

In a statement to The Detroit News in January, Paul Chatfield said he helped his brother from the first day he announced his candidacy to the day he left office.

“My only regret is that I didn’t get paid at least minimum wage because I would’ve made much more than an average of $7,000 a year,” he said.

House Elections Chairwoman Ann Bollin, R-Brighton Township, and House Oversight Chairman Steve Johnson, R-Wayland, have been involved in at least some of the bills in the new ethics package.

Johnson said the proposals are part of the House’s effort to increase transparency. So far, Senate leadership has resisted many of those efforts. But Johnson said the House wants to keep the pressure on.

Lavora Barnes, chairwoman of the Michigan Democratic Party, called Wednesday for “a full-scale, top-to-bottom audit of the Michigan Legislature done transparently so every dollar and every expense is accounted for during the time former Speaker Chatfield controlled the budget.”

The chairwoman’s request focused on former Chatfield legislative staffer Anne Minard, who also worked as his political consultant. Her husband, Rob Minard, was Chatfield’s chief of staff.

Michigan State Police troopers searched the Minards’ Lansing area home on Feb. 15. The couple has not responded to requests for comment.

cmauger@detroitnews.com



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