Michigan Democrats: House must launch ethics investigation into former Speaker Chatfield

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — Michigan House Democrats pressed majority Republicans Thursday to launch an investigation into former Speaker Lee Chatfield, saying the public's trust in state government was at stake.

Democrats formally introduced a resolution Thursday to create a bipartisan select committee to examine Chatfield's actions as the top lawmaker in the House. He left the chamber because of term limits at the end of 2020. Current House Speaker Jason Wentworth, R-Farwell, has the power to decide whether to act on the proposal.

Wentworth's leadership team directed the proposed resolution to the Government Operations Committee, a panel that rarely meets or takes up bills.

The push by Democrats came amid an ongoing criminal probe into Chatfield and accusations that he sexually abused his sister-in-law, Rebekah Chatfield, beginning when she was 15. Lee Chatfield has denied wrongdoing and has not been charged.

Michigan Rep. Tyrone Carter speaks at a press conference, calling for a House investigation into former Speaker Lee Chatfield. At his right are House Minority Leader Donna Lasinski and Rep. Terry Sabo.

The allegations, however, have prompted new scrutiny of his financial activities as the speaker of the House, where he was a prolific fundraiser and traveler.

The Detroit News reported in January that his political accounts directed at least $900,000 in campaign and nonprofit funds to family members, legislative staffers and organizations they led for wages and consulting fees.

During a Thursday press conference, Rep. Terry Sabo, D-Muskegon, said there are "violations against the public trust" that erode faith in government but don't rise to the "level of criminality."

"The current legislative body needs to, has a responsibility to, investigate these allegations against the expected ethical standard of public servants," Sabo said.

"We in the Legislature, and most importantly our citizens, deserve to know what is going on inside of our state Capitol," Sabo added. "Without the truth, there can be no trust."

Standing behind a sign that read "You deserve answers," Democratic lawmakers highlighted that two of Chatfield's top legislative staffers also operated a consulting business that his political action committees hired.

They also noted House records, obtained by The News, showing staffers working for Chatfield received more than $300,000 in taxpayer-funded bonuses over a two-year period. The News has revealed one of Chatfield's top aides, Anne Minard, maintained two full-time jobs in 2021, working in a government position for the state House under Wentworth and working for GOPAC, a Virginia-based political committee.

Minard has not responded to requests for comment.

Michigan State Police troopers searched the home of Anne Minard and Rob Minard, who was Chatfield's chief of staff, on Feb. 15. Attorney General Dana Nessel's office is also involved in the investigation.

House Minority Leader Donna Lasinski, D-Scio Township, said it's possible that Chatfield did nothing wrong legally. But questions about his actions must be answered, she said.

"We are not presupposing what those answers are," Lasinski said.

In January, Wentworth's spokesman said the House would not conduct an internal investigation into allegations against Chatfield.

"Right now, we're just trying to gather information on what happened," spokesman Gideon D'Assandro said at the time. "A lot of this is just now coming out. The police investigation is just getting under way. We're focused on cooperating with MSP (Michigan State Police) and LPD (Lansing Police Department) and getting them what they need."

But Rep. Tyrone Carter, D-Detroit, argued Thursday there are employer-imposed standards of conduct that are different from legal standards and the House should conduct its own investigation.

A committee similar to what Democrats are now proposing was created in 2015 to examine whether Republican then-Reps. Todd Courser of the Lapeer area and Cindy Gamrat of Plainwell misused taxpayer resources to conceal an office romance. Eventually, Courser resigned, and Gamrat was expelled from the House.

The Democrats' resolution specifically cites a House rule that says a member shall not convert House resources for personal, business or campaign use.