Chatfield denies sister-in-law's sexual abuse claims, says it was an affair

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Former Michigan House Speaker Lee Chatfield on Friday denied claims he sexually abused his sister-in-law but admitted to an affair as her lawyer made more detailed accusations about the former lawmaker's alleged assaults on the 26-year-old woman.

While Chatfield's lawyer argued the woman was a "consenting adult" over the age of 18, the woman's lawyer maintained the sexual abuse began when she was 15 — before Michigan's legal age of consent — and said Chatfield "manipulated" her at a vulnerable time through their connection at a northern Michigan church.

The abuse continued into adulthood, including on her wedding night, said Jamie White, the woman's lawyer.

Chatfield's lawyer, Mary Chartier, said the affair with the woman accusing the 33-year-old Levering Republican lasted years, "but they were both consenting adults." The married former lawmaker also acknowledged he has had multiple affairs. 

"Mr. Chatfield deeply regrets the decisions he has made," Chartier said in a statement. "It has caused great pain to his wife and family, and they are working through this together. But he did not assault this woman in any manner during their years-long adult relationship. He intends to vigorously fight these false claims."

Michigan House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, speaks with reporters on May 9, 2019, in the state Capitol. On Friday, his lawyer said Chatfield had an affair with his sister-in-law but did not sexually abuse her.

White denied there was anything "consensual" about the relationship. Chatfield, White said, took advantage of the woman when she would come over to watch his kids, "manipulated her through the church," took advantage of her while she was "vulnerable," and assaulted the woman "in a closet on her wedding night." 

"The former speaker's behavior has been reprehensible, and I am confident he will be held accountable for his actions," White said.  

In response to White's statement, Chartier stressed the relationship only occurred while the woman was a "consenting adult" and over the age of 18.

"He did not manipulate or take advantage of her," she said. "She was an adult, and she made her own choices."

In Michigan, it is considered illegal for an adult to have sex with a person younger than the age of 16. The age of consent increases to 18 if the perpetrator is a teacher and the victim is a student at the same school.

The Detroit News does not usually identify victims of sexual assault. The woman, through White, agreed to disclose her relationship to Chatfield but asked not to be publicly named.

The woman filed a complaint with the Lansing Police Department in December alleging she'd been assaulted by the former House speaker from the time she was about 15 and into last year. 

The Lansing Police Department still is investigating the claims within its jurisdiction while a Michigan State Police post in northern Michigan is also working on the investigation, the agencies said Thursday. 

The investigation focuses on allegations that Chatfield sexually abused the woman for about 12 years, starting when she was a teenager and attending Chatfield's church, Northern Michigan Baptist Bible Church, White said. The alleged abuse continued while she attended the school associated with the church and ended in 2021. 

"We are very confident that between Michigan State Police and our independent investigation he’s going to be held accountable,” White said Thursday. "This young woman is extremely terrified of what’s coming forward for her as far as how the ex-speaker is going to respond. We're wrapping our arms around her to make sure she has tools to deal with this.”

Chatfield served as a representative for a northern Michigan district for six years and served as speaker of the House, the highest position in the chamber, his last two years in office, 2019 and 2020. When he assumed leadership of the chamber amid divided government at age 30, Chatfield was the youngest House speaker in more than a century

During his time leading the House, Chatfield passed a historic auto insurance reform package through the state House and became known as an effective fundraiser for Republican candidates.

Before serving in the House, Chatfield was a full-time high school teacher, coach and athletic director at Northern Michigan Christian Academy in Burt Lake. 

His father, Rusty, was superintendent and history teacher for the school. He also is pastor of Northern Michigan Baptist Bible Church and is regularly featured on conservative talk radio in northern Michigan. 

Chatfield was arrested, but not criminally charged in 2018 after he carried a loaded, unregistered handgun into the Pellston Regional Airport. Authorities found the weapon during a routine scan of his carry-on bag. 

He paid a $1,960 fine to the federal Transportation Security Administration in relation to the incident.

Chatfield won his House seat in 2014 by foisting incumbent GOP Rep. Frank Foster, in part by campaigning against Foster's support for an expansion of the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act — an expansion that would shield people from discrimination due to sexual orientation or gender identity. 

In 2021, after leaving office, Chatfield's opposition to the expansion cost him a job as CEO of a southwestern Michigan economic development group. He resigned amid a wave of criticism over his stance on the issue, noting "as a Christian, I believe the Bible. I don't want to hide from that."

Staff Writer Craig Mauger contributed.