Lee Chatfield allegations fuel push for ethics reform in Michigan Legislature
Lansing — Allegations of sexual and financial impropriety by former House Speaker Lee Chatfield are energizing an effort to strengthen ethics laws in Michigan, where lawmakers are negotiating a potential policy response via prospective and previously introduced bills.
State Sen. Ed McBroom, a Vulcan Republican who chairs the Senate Oversight Committee, is among a handful of influential lawmakers working to amend and in some cases expand a House-approved ethics package before it reaches the Senate floor as early as this spring.
McBroom wants to tighten campaign finance rules in response to reporting by Bridge Michigan and other outlets detailing how Chatfield used political funds to fuel extensive travel and a lavish lifestyle.
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"In order for our government to function well, there has to be a significant amount of public trust," McBroom told Bridge Michigan on Thursday. "A lack of transparency just breeds suspicion."
While lawmakers are still negotiating details of a final ethics reform deal, possibilities also include some form of personal financial disclosure for lawmakers, new lobbying rules and expanded access to public records.
Chatfield, whose attorney has denied any illegal actions, left office at the end of 2020 but is back in the public eye amid a state police investigation into claims he sexually assaulted a woman who would later become his sister in law, beginning when she was a teenage student at a Christian academy where he taught.
An attorney for the woman, Rebekah Chatfield, says police are also scrutinizing Chatfield's finances while in office, including his use of multiple political action committees and a dark money nonprofit that paid staff and family members for unspecified work outside the Capitol.
Former colleagues told Bridge that Chatfield had extravagant taste and traveled so frequently that he sometimes canceled House votes on Thursdays to catch planes, a lifestyle seemingly out of reach for a father of five who earned $95,985 as state House Speaker.
Records show the Peninsula Fund, a nonprofit tied to Chatfield and run by two of his top legislative staffers, spent nearly a half-million dollars on travel and food in 2020 alone. But IRS rules don’t require the dark money fund to disclose donors or explain how its money was spent.
While political nonprofits are generally governed by federal rules, McBroom told Bridge he is exploring "whether there's still opportunity for us to make sure that legislators who have them are doing disclosure" at the state level.
"Strengthening our disclosure, at the very least, along with some more stringent parameters about whether or not we allow staff and family members to receive wages from these accounts, is a really important discussion that we need to have," McBroom said.
Michigan has consistently ranked as one of the worst states in the nation for ethics and transparency laws, but the House last year approved a series of bipartisan reforms that advocates contend could help build public trust in government and the legislative process.
One package would expand public access to government records, ending a blanket exemption for all state lawmakers and the governor’s office.
Another would prohibit lawmakers from immediately becoming paid lobbyists after leaving office and require them to disclose personal financial information to a private board, among other things.
The legislation has so far stalled in the Senate, where Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, has expressed concerns over both packages. He has said he fears the financial disclosures could be used against lawmakers or deter prospective candidates from seeking public office.
But Shirkey told reporters last week that negotiations have continued behind the scenes since House passage last summer. He said he thinks "we're very close to having the ethics package ready to run" in the Senate.
"I've never wavered on the ethics portions, with the exception of reporting of personal assets," Shirkey said, noting he wants to "get that defined and written in a way in which I believe it can be controlled so that it's not going to be used against somebody or doesn't deter quality people from wanting to run for office."
Michigan is one of just two states that does not require state lawmakers to disclose their financial interests, which makes it difficult to know if they are supporting bills that personally benefit them.
Transparency advocates have expressed concerns about personal financial disclosure legislation passed by the House and fear that Shirkey’s pending revisions could effectively gut it.
Instead of requiring lawmakers to publicly disclose finances, the House plan would require them to file reports to a legislative ethics oversight committee that would operate in secret and not be subject to the state’s Open Meetings Act.
“For me, the only financial disclosure that matters is financial disclosure to the people,” said Rep. Dave LaGrand, a Grand Rapids Democrat who has pushed more aggressive public disclosure bills that have not advanced.
“Anything else is a distraction at best and counterproductive at worst,” he said.
The Chatfield allegations are the latest in a series of personal controversies in the Michigan Legislature this session.
State Rep. Jewell Jones, D-Inkster, is heading toward trial on drunk driving, weapon and resisting arrest charges after erratic driving last spring. State Rep. Brian Posthumus, R-Cannon Township, in July was sentenced to 15 days in jail and two years of probation for drunk driving.
Prosecutors in October decided not to file criminal charges against state Rep. Steve Marino, R-Harrison Township, after fellow Rep. Mari Manoogian, D-Birmingham, accused him of sending threatening text messages at the conclusion of a romantic relationship.
As the Senate considers changes to the ethics package, McBroom told Bridge Michigan he’s also hoping to add tougher transparency rules for public universities.
The University of Michigan Board of Regents last month met behind closed doors and voted to fire President Mark Schlissel after what had been a secret investigation into an improper relationship with a school employee.
In recent weeks, Republicans and Democrats in the Michigan House have urged the Senate to act on the ethics reform package the lower chamber approved in June.
“Now more than ever, we’re seeing the importance of legislative ethics and the need for state laws that require it," state Rep. Pamela Hornberger, R-Chesterfield Township, said in a statement last week.
Absent action in the Senate, House Democrats on Wednesday announced they’ve drafted a resolution that proposes to create a new bipartisan House Select Committee on Ethics to investigate allegations of wrongdoing by current or former lawmakers.
The committee would be subject to the state's Open Meetings Act, meaning even allegations would be aired publicly during investigations, according to LaGrand, who helped author the resolution.
"If we are going to change a culture, we have to change it with publicity and with accountability to the voters,” LaGrand told Bridge Michigan.
The Chatfield allegations should also spur long overdue lobbying and campaign finance reforms, LaGrand added, arguing that Michigan should bar "all sources of dark money" and prohibit politicians from controlling nonprofits.
"One of the things that I learned as a defense attorney and as a prosecutor is that people will often sell their integrity for shockingly small amounts of return," he said. "People really will sell their integrity for a nice dinner or for a few thousand dollars."
Reporters Sergio Martínez-Beltrán and Yue Stella Yu contributed
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