Dana Nessel: Keep Lee Chatfield records secret to avoid embarrassment
- State lawyers say the criminal investigation into Lee Chatfield also involves high level government officials and lobbyists
- A judge has shielded police search records in the Chatfield case
- Bridge is urging the court to make the records public
The criminal investigation into former House Speaker Lee Chatfield also involves other high level government officials, appointees and lobbyists, a lawyer in Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel’s office has told an Ingham County judge.
Assistant Attorney General Michael Frezza made the disclosure during a Nov. 21 court hearing where he urged Ingham County Circuit Court Judge Wanda Stokes to shield records in the Chatfield case — which had already been ordered released by another judge — from public view.
Doing so, Frezza said, would protect the investigation as well as any victims and witnesses. Frezza also expressed concern about embarrassing the people named in the investigation documents.
- Gretchen Whitmer (again) vows to open records, toughen lobbying rules
- Bridge, Free Press seek court hearing to open Chatfield records to public
- Dana Nessel obtains blanket shield of Lee Chatfield investigation records
- Sister-in-law: Ex-MI House Speaker Lee Chatfield sexually assaulted me as teen
- Lee Chatfield raised millions, traveled often. Michigan law kept much secret
“Without going into specific detail,” Frezza said, “this investigation involves a series of former Michigan officials, current officials, lobbyists, governmental appointees, at high levels, and other governmental employees.”
But Frezza added that “they are only allegations,” and posited that by releasing search warrant affidavits tied to the investigation, those parties “just by having a name associated with wrongful conduct, could be exposed to embarrassment.”
“So there may be people who did nothing wrong, just associates,” he said. He added that there may be people who did “something more minor wrong,” and people who did “very major things wrong.”
Frezza’s statements, contained in a newly-public court transcript, provide new details about the scope of an investigation that began with allegations of sexual assault by Chatfield’s sister-in-law, and has since expanded to include a wide-ranging probe of Chatfield’s financial conduct while in office.
The request to shield the documents came after a lower court judge on Nov. 8 ordered their release to Bridge Michigan and the Detroit Free Press, after the two news outlets appealed blanket suppressions that state lawyers had used to keep them private.
By law, Michigan search warrant affidavits become public 56 days after a search is conducted, with limited exceptions. But government investigators in the Chatfield case have routinely sought and obtained indefinite suppression of such documents through legal filings and court hearings in which news organizations were not given notice or the ability to appear to contest the documents’ suppression.
Michigan law contains no explicit provision allowing investigators to shield search warrant documents to avoid embarrassing people who are named in the documents.
In court filings urging 54-A District Court Judge Stacia Buchanan to release the documents, Bridge and the Free Press argued that while investigators often have good reason to temporarily shield search warrant information from the public — such as, to avoid tipping off a critical witness — there was no evidence those circumstances applied to the Chatfield documents.
Some of the records in question had already been released to the Detroit News, apparently by accident, while court officials refused to share them with other news outlets or the public.
Buchanan concluded that state lawyers who had obtained orders to shield the documents from public view had relied upon a statute that doesn’t allow such blanket suppressions.
That prompted state lawyers to appeal to Stokes, who granted the current order staying (delaying) the records’ release to the public. Bridge and the Free Press are contesting Stokes’ order.
In the hearing with Frezza, Stokes said she disagreed with the lower court’s conclusion that investigators relied on a statute that only allows shielding documents from the person who is a target of a search.
“The district court has read 780.654(3) too narrowly,” Stokes said, according to the transcript.
Spokespeople in Nessel’s office did not immediately respond Wednesday to a request for comment. Frezza did not answer a phone call.
In a round table interview with Michigan news media on Wednesday, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer responded to a question about the Chatfield case by expressing concern about broader accountability failings in state government.
“There were a lot of things that didn't work well,” Whitmer said. “And in terms of oversight accountability, and I think that there's a lot of work that this incoming legislature is keen on doing and we'll work very closely together on that. People deserve to know that their leaders are looking out for them, not themselves. That they're following the law. And if the law is not tight enough, we'll change it."
More specifically, Whitmer said Wednesday she'd like to "take a look" at Michigan lobbying laws and "make some improvements," including the closure of what she called "loopholes that perhaps contributed to the alleged Chatfield story."
"I'm not as steeped in it as our attorney general's office," the governor said. "There's probably lots that none of us knows yet, so I think we've got to understand it, learn from it, and fix areas where we can."
Whitmer negotiated several legislative packages with Chatfield when he served as House Speaker during her first two years as governor but said she was not aware of any unethical or potentially criminal activity on his part.
"I did not hang out with him socially," she said. "(We) had meetings, and on a handful of occasions he came over to the (governor's) residence, but we didn't hang out."
Chatfield’s sister-in-law, Rebekah Chatfield, told police and Bridge in December 2021 that the former House Speaker had been sexually assaulting her since she was a student of 15 or 16 years old at the Chatfield family-run Christian school where Lee Chatfield then taught.
Lee Chatfield’s brother and Rebekah Chatfield’s husband, Aaron Chatfield, told Bridge that his politically powerful older brother helped secure him jobs in Lansing, including a position at Grand River Strategies, a consulting firm hired to help run the House Republican Campaign Committee, where Aaron said he was essentially paid to work as Lee’s unofficial driver.
Through his lawyer, Lee Chatfield has denied wrongdoing, saying he engaged in a yearslong consensual affair with his sister-in-law when the two were consenting adults.
In the year since, investigators have searched multiple properties and the personal belongings of Chatfield and his close associates, seeking information pertaining to the assault allegations as well as allegations of financial misconduct against Chatfield.
The former House speaker was a prolific spender and fundraiser who raised eyebrows in Lansing for his lavish lifestyle and frequent lobbyist-paid meals and trips.
A Detroit News investigation found that the lobbying firm Governmental Consulting Services, Inc. spent nearly six times more money on Chatfield than the two previous three speakers combined, and rented an apartment from one of the firm’s clients.
We’ve been there for you with daily Michigan COVID-19 news; reporting on the emergence of the virus, daily numbers with our tracker and dashboard, exploding unemployment, and we finally were able to report on mass vaccine distribution. We report because the news impacts all of us. Will you please support our nonprofit newsroom?