Lawyer for Chatfield accuser asks church, school to preserve records

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

The law firm for a woman accusing former House Speaker Lee Chatfield of sexually abusing her when she was about 15 is seeking the preservation of all electronically stored information at the Burt Lake church run by Chatfield's father and the school where Chatfield taught.

The notice mailed Tuesday by Okemos-based White Law PLLC informed Northern Michigan Baptist Bible Church and Northern Michigan Christian Academy that their client may be filing a lawsuit or initiating other legal proceedings related to "the sexual abuse of our client committed by Mr. Chatfield from approximately 2010 through 2021."

The church and school, attorney Alexander Rusek wrote, are obligated under state and federal law to preserve all records "potentially relevant to this dispute."

"You should anticipate that much of the information subject to disclosure or responsive to discovery in this case is stored on your current and former computer systems and other media and devices (including personal digital assistants, voice-messaging systems, online repositories and cell phones)," Rusek wrote. 

Michigan House Speaker Lee Chatfield addresses a President Donald Trump rally in Muskegon on Oct. 17, 2020.

Rusty Chatfield, the former speaker's father and president of the church and school, said Tuesday he'd not yet received any sort of legal hold or preservation letter from the law firm. 

The notice from the law firm comes three days after the Michigan House's general counsel told lawmakers to "secure and preserve" any documents related to Chatfield's conduct while in office or related to his use of House resources.

Police confirmed last week that Chatfield's 26-year-old sister-in-law had filed a complaint in December alleging the former speaker had sexually abused her starting when she was about 15. She alleged the abuse began while she was a member of Chatfield's church and continued while she attended the school connected to the church. 

Chatfield's lawyer, Mary Chartier, argued the woman was a "consenting adult" over the age of 18. On Tuesday, Chartier said she was not surprised "this woman is gearing up for a civil lawsuit."

"It doesn’t matter how many preservation letters are sent out — Mr. Chatfield did not assault this woman," Chartier said. 

Rusty Chatfield also denied allegations that the woman was underage at the time of the relationship. 

Prior to serving in the House, Lee Chatfield served as a high school teacher, coach and athletic director at Northern Michigan Christian Academy, according to his biography on the House website

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 Tuesday letter sent to the school and church requests a response confirming preservation steps have been taken by Jan. 21. Several church officers and directors were copied on the letter as well as the general counsels for the Michigan House and Senate. 

On Sunday, Rusty Chatfield, without ever specifically referencing his son's case, told church members that the church had "done nothing wrong" and they should not allow "false accusations stop us from doing the work of God." He said the church lived in the world where there is sin and "there is a measure of truth." But he referred to Nehemiah to warn against believing what is "reported among the heathen."

"I love that," Rusty Chatfield said, according to a recording of the sermon. "That's the anonymous source thing. That's saying something. 'It was reported among the heathen' with no one verifying the truth, but that's what sells newspapers. That is the way that is."

When asked about the sermon Tuesday, Rusty Chatfield declined to comment. 

Staff Writer Craig Mauger contributed.

eleblanc@detroitnews.com