Judge blocks release of search warrant documents in Chatfield investigation

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Lansing — An Ingham County judge last week stopped the release of several documents related to a criminal investigation into former House Speaker Lee Chatfield after Attorney General Dana Nessel's office urged the court to keep the information suppressed.

Ingham County Circuit Judge Wanda Stokes on Nov. 21 ordered a stay that blocks any search warrant materials related to the Chatfield investigation from being released while Nessel's office appeals a lower court decision that ordered the documents be made public.

"Providing the search warrant documents (to) any person, including interested press, defeats the purpose of protecting an ongoing criminal investigation and protection of witness(es) and victim(s)," Nessel's office said in a Nov. 18 request for the documents to remain suppressed.

Former House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, has come under investigation by Attorney General Dana Nessel's office over allegations of sexual abuse, drug use and financial improprieties stemming from his time in office.

Stokes' corresponding order on Nov. 21 blocks the "release or production of any search warrant materials or information contained in these files and similarly situated files involving this law enforcement investigation."

The order comes more than a month after The Detroit News first reported on two search warrant affidavits issued in the Chatfield investigation that indicated police were looking into allegations of sexual abuse, drug use and financial improprieties related to the former speaker.

More:5 revelations in the Chatfield investigation search warrant affidavits

After the April search warrant affidavits were released to The News on Oct. 17 by the 54A District Court clerk's office, Ingham County District Judge Cynthia Ward said the records had been released erroneously and were still suppressed.

Law enforcement began investigating Chatfield in January after his sister-in-law, Rebekah Chatfield, told police she'd been sexually assaulted by the former speaker starting when she was around 15. Lee Chatfield, through his attorney Mary Chartier, has maintained the relationship was consensual and began when she was 18.

Chartier has said the former speaker also "vehemently denies" the affidavits' allegations.

"Affidavits can be based on rumors, speculation, and outright falsehoods told to the police," Chartier said last month. "Mr. Chatfield is confident that an independent and objective view of the evidence will show that he has committed no crime."

More:Ex-House Speaker Lee Chatfield's ties to marijuana industry getting scrutiny from investigators

Nessel's office argued in court none of the search warrant information related to the investigation should be released and a lower court decision set a bad precedent and could endanger the current investigation. The attorney general's office noted the additional affidavits included "financial information from PACs and 501(c)(4) organizations that law enforcement believes may be involved in crimes."

"There are other search warrant affidavits that the district court may also release sua sponte that names other previously undisclosed elected officials, government employees, and potential co-conspirators or confederates, as well as other misdeeds," Nessel's office said in its Nov. 18 filing.

After the search warrant affidavits were released to The News in October, the court began its own review of the search warrants and related suppression orders after receiving "correspondences from the Michigan Department of Attorney General (MDAG) regarding the release of the affidavits," according to filings in the case.

A group of media organizations, including Bridge Michigan, filed a motion to intervene Nov. 2, asking the judge to release the records the attorney general's office believed to be suppressed.

After Oct. 27 and Oct. 31 hearings, 54-A District Court Judge Stacia Buchanan ordered four search warrants and their affidavits — three issued March 9 and one on June 8 — be released by Nov. 22. Buchanan blocked the release of associated tabulation documents and prohibited a person whose property was searched from gaining access to the affidavit.

Buchanan ruled on Nov. 8 that one suppression law the attorney general had relied on to suppress the documents until charges are issued only blocked the individual whose property was seized or searched from obtaining the records. Another law the attorney general relied on, Buchanan wrote, required the suppression order be re-suppressed 56 days after issuance.

In the case of the search warrants at issue, "no additional suppression order was sought to extend the suppression," Buchanan concluded. "Thus, these affidavits became public fifty-six days after issuance of the search warrants."

Buchanan did not issue a written ruling on the two April search warrant affidavits released to The News, noting in a footnote in her Nov. 8 order that she would not issue an order on them because they were signed by another judge.

Nessel's office said in its Nov. 17 filing that Buchanan indicated on the record at an Oct. 31 hearing that the two April suppression orders were vacated, then refused to sign the order.

The Detroit News asked 54-A District Court earlier this month for copies of March search warrant affidavits related to the case, but was told in a Nov. 21 email that the court did not "have any public affidavits available."

Staff writer Craig Mauger contributed to this report.


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