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Michigan GOP seeks lobbying, finance reforms after Lee Chatfield scandal

lee chatfield
Former House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, is under investigation by the Michigan State Police following claims of sexual assault and lavish use of nonprofits tied to him. (Bridge file photo)

LANSING — Michigan House Republicans are renewing their push for stronger ethics laws on public records requests, lobbying and campaign finance — efforts fueled by allegations of sexual assault and misuse of political funds against former House Speaker Lee Chatfield.

House Republicans unveiled a slew of reform measures this week to require more disclosure from public agencies, restrict lobbyists from spending on elected officials and legislative staffers and ban campaigns from paying incumbents, staffers, candidates and their families.

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“We need to restore some level of trust in this institution that has been lost,” House Oversight Committee Chair Steve Johnson, R-Wayland, told Bridge Michigan. “It’s incumbent on us, if we want to better serve our constituents, we need to show them in some tangible ways steps we are taking to make sure that there is not widespread corruption.”

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Lawmakers have debated ethics reforms for years, but allegations against the Republican former House speaker have renewed the push for such bills, with the latest introduced during Sunshine Week. Chatfield is under investigation by Michigan State Police after his sister-in-law alleged he abused her, but he is also under scrutiny for frequent travel while he was House speaker and paying his relatives and staffers from nonprofits and campaign funds.

“We need to not be complacent with inaction any longer,” Sen. Jeremy Moss, D-Southfield, said on the Senate floor Wednesday. “How many more legislative scandals must we all endure when the information that should be accessible to the public is only exposed during a criminal investigation?”

Bipartisan ethics proposals approved by the House have stalled in the Senate. Those measures would, among other things, subject the governor’s office to open records laws, require lawmakers to disclose personal financial interests and ban them from immediately becoming lobbyists after leaving office. Michigan and Idaho are the only two states without any type of personal financial disclosure requirements, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Senate Oversight Committee Chair Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan, told Bridge Michigan on Wednesday he hopes to introduce a different package and start negotiating with the House before the Legislature breaks for the summer. 

Lawmakers could strike a deal as early as fall, he said. 

“Everybody has a strong desire that the institution be trusted and that we be transparent and open with the public,” he told Bridge.

The legislative effort follows reports from Bridge Michigan and other news outlets on Chatfield’s lifestyle while he was speaker from 2019 to 2021. Fellow lawmakers told Bridge that Chatfield would adjourn sessions on Thursdays to leave for junkets, while a consultant — David Forsmark —  told Bridge Michigan that Chatfield had a reputation among Lansing lobbyists as someone who “walked in, ordered the most expensive bottle of wine every time and then found somebody to charge it to.”

The Peninsula Fund — a nonprofit tied to Chatfield and run by his former chief of staff Rob Minard and his wife Anne Minard — spent almost half a million dollars on travel and food in 2020, records show. However, the group is not required to disclose its donors or explain how the money was spent due to its tax-exempt status under the federal law.

Chatfield also faces accusations from his sister-in-law Rebekah Chatfield, who claims he sexually abused her since she was 15 or 16 when Lee was a teacher at a northern Michigan Christian school run by his father, Rusty. The married Lee Chatfield has acknowledged having a sexual relationship with Rebekah, but said his relationships with her and other women were consensual.

Several bills in the new House package appear to be directly in response to Chatfield.

House Bills 5926 and 5927 would bar public officials and their family members from accepting or soliciting travel or lodging, and require lobbyists to report expenses on partisan legislative staffers. Currently, lobbyists must report spending on food, drinks, travel and lodging for public officials if they spend more than $25 per month or more than $150 during the calendar year.

McBroom contended lobbyist-sponsored trips are sometimes “critical” but also costly for lawmakers themselves. Instead of banning lobbyists from paying for trips and lodging, McBroom said he is in favor of expanding disclosure rules.

“Sometimes you go on trips that are really critical. … What if I’ve been invited to the Palisades to see the nuclear power plants, and lunch was provided because they wanted me to come, and it would have been personally expensive for me to also buy lunch and drive down there,” he said. 

“I think the clarity in knowing and having the limits are probably better than just outright disallowing those things to happen altogether.”

House Elections and Ethics Committee Chair Ann Bollin, a Brighton Republican who co-sponsored the package, said she is open to negotiation.

Another bill, sponsored by Rep. Beau LaFave, R-Iron Mountain, would prohibit candidates, sitting elected officials and their family members from being paid by campaigns, political organizations, or any other groups associated with them. It would also require campaigns to disclose whether it has paid state employees. 

Other bills would apply stricter disclosure rules on public agencies. Under the package, public agencies must publish the names and contact information of those who handle records requests, respond to the request within two business days to confirm receipt and specify in guidelines if they accept electronic payments for producing the records.

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One of those bills requires that, for each record exempt from public disclosure, the public agency acknowledges the record exists, describes it, and explains why it is not disclosed.

Another of those proposals would allow the public to sue over rejected requests if the public agencies refused to turn over documents because it decided “searching for or furnishing copies of a public record cannot be considered as primarily benefiting the general public.” 

Public agencies would also be prohibited from giving public records to their attorneys to avoid disclosure. One bill specifies that, when sued over public records denial, the agencies would have to stick to their initial reason of denial instead of “start changing the rules and changing the reasons,” Johnson said. 

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