Commentary

Susan J. Demas: Why won’t the House investigate Chatfield’s corruption and sex abuse scandals?

October 30, 2022 3:32 am

House Speaker Lee Chatfield at the State of the State address, Jan. 29, 2020 | Andrew Roth

Even if you’ve been in Lansing for way too long, it was pretty stunning to see a former speaker of the House last week accused of running a “criminal enterprise” out of his Capitol office — just months after he was accused of allegedly sexually assaulting a child.

This isn’t a name from the distant past, either. Lee Chatfield just left office in 2020 and was, at one point, considered a top 2022 GOP gubernatorial prospect. Republican powerbrokers well beyond Michigan counted themselves as fans.

The father of five, who’s the son of a northern Michigan preacher, carefully cultivated a squeaky-clean image, while demonstrating an uncanny knack for raising boatloads of cash — which helped him become the state’s youngest House speaker in history in 2019.

His family’s coziness with far-right leaders — Michigan Militia founder Norm Olson once ran their Christian school — raised some eyebrows in Lansing, but he fit in well with Trump-era Republicans across the country, so people generally kept their doubts to themselves.

Now state investigators are now probing how exactly Chatfield was able to collect $5 million in various accounts, how he spent it and who was involved. Chatfield’s top aides, Rob and Anne Minard, had their house searched by police this year. Anne Minard, who told investigators she didn’t know of any “unethical or illegal” use of funds but called Chatifeld’s spending “excessive,” remains on the state House payroll as an event planner. And the House is footing the legal bill for employees interviewed in the criminal probe.

The lack of curiosity over a massive corruption and sexual assault scandal plaguing the Legislature seems … curious. GOP House Speaker Jason Wentworth, who’s now term-limited himself, has been dodging reporters for months about why he won’t investigate his predecessor.

Court documents point to an array of lobbyists and political operatives who were dedicated to the business of keeping Lee happy. 

That allegedly meant making sure his relatives were gainfully employed. And it allegedly included keeping him pumped with Adderall, if statements from his brother, Aaron Chatfield, and Anne Minard, are accurate, as well as luxurious trips to the Bahamas, Miami and Aspen where he may have had some company from prostitutes.

That’s according to Rebekah Chatfield, Lee Chatfield’s sister-in-law who has accused him of sexually assaulting her starting when she was 15 or 16 and he was a teacher at his dad’s Christian school. 

Far and away, her allegations have been the most haunting. She told investigators that the former speaker had sexually assaulted her from 2010 to 2021, even after she had married his brother, Aaron Chatfield. Disturbingly, Rebekah Chatfield alleged that Lee Chatfield recorded him sexually assaulting her in June 2021 on his cell phone.

Lee Chatfield’s attorney, Mary Chartier, “vehemently denies” the recent allegations, telling the Detroit News that “affidavits can be based on rumors, speculation, and outright falsehoods told to the police. Mr. Chatfield is confident that an independent and objective view of the evidence will show that he has committed no crime.” Previously, she characterized the relationship between Rebekah and Lee Chatfield as a consensual affair.

No charges have yet been filed. And they might not be. But there are myriad ethical issues that Michigan House leadership could be looking into right now — and they should. Because this is far and away the most serious scandal to rock the Legislature in decades.

Lee Chatfield was one of the most powerful leaders of the state with considerable say over the state’s $70 billion-plus budget. Michigan taxpayers deserve to know if there was any wrongdoing and if there was, who else in the Legislature played a part.

It should be an easy and bipartisan decision. Chatfield isn’t even in office any more thanks to term limits. But Republican leaders who run the state House have steadfastly refused to launch any investigation of their own, with House Speaker Jason Wentworth (R-Farwell) insisting that’s the job of law enforcement.

House Speaker Lee Chatfield (left) and Rep. Jason Wentworth (right) | Nick Manes

The lack of curiosity over a massive corruption and sexual assault scandal plaguing the Legislature seems … curious. Wentworth, who’s now term-limited himself, has been dodging reporters for months about why he won’t investigate his predecessor.

So far, it’s only Democrats in the Legislature clamoring for action.

“This is what corruption looks like — increasingly credible allegations about representatives violating their oath and breaking the law, and knowing full well that there won’t be any investigation into their actions,” House Minority Leader Donna Lasinski (D-Scio Twp.) said this month. “This is the corruption the current Republican leadership has fostered, and it’s dangerous for Michigan and destructive for our democracy.”

It sure is interesting that Chatfield, who raised more than $2.1 million the year he left office — a time when he wouldn’t seem to need it — donated to 73% of current GOP legislators. 

House Democrats have called for Republicans to return the cash — flagging the $138,500 to Wentworth and $39,600 to former Rep. Shane Hernandez (R-Port Huron), who’s now running for lieutenant governor alongside GOP nominee Tudor Dixon.

There’s also a whopping $407,900 to the House Republican Campaign Committee, which is in charge of making sure that the GOP keeps the majority in the upcoming election.

It sure is interesting that Chatfield, who raised more than $2.1 million the year he left office — a time when he wouldn’t seem to need it — donated to 73% of current GOP legislators.

The lack of interest in accountability for Chatfield shows that Republican lawmakers don’t seem to take allegations of sexual assault seriously, which is pretty hard to stomach in the year 2022. 

In fact, Republicans are still pushing a shameless election message accusing Democrats and LGBTQ+ people of “grooming” children — which borrows from the loony QAnon conspiracy theory. That’s a pretty bold move, given what Chatfield has been accused of.

We have to ask: Why would any Republican want to be associated with Chatfield? Is winning the Nov. 8 election more important than having a moral compass? 

Apparently, yes. That kind of rot doesn’t develop overnight and feeds on power and arrogance. It’s not a coincidence that Republicans have run the House since 2011 and the Senate since 1984

Too often, absolute power corrupts absolutely. Michiganders don’t need lawmakers who use their positions to skate accountability or protect their friends. We deserve leaders who have our best interests at heart.

SUPPORT NEWS YOU TRUST.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Avatar
Susan J. Demas

Susan J. Demas is a 22-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on MSNBC, CNN, NPR and WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record.” In addition to serving as Editor-in-Chief, she is the Advance’s chief columnist, writing on women, LGBTQ+ people, the state budget, the economy and more. She previously served as Vice President of Farough & Associates, Michigan’s premier political communications firm. For almost five years, Susan was the Editor and Publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, the most-cited political newsletter in the state. Susan’s award-winning political analysis has run in more than 90 national, international and regional media outlets, including the Guardian U.K., NBC News, the New York Times, the Detroit News and MLive. She is the only Michigan journalist to be named to the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Reporters,” the Huffington Post’s list of “Best Political Tweeters” and the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Bloggers.” Susan was the recipient of a prestigious Knight Foundation fellowship in nonprofits and politics. She served as Deputy Editor for MIRS News and helped launch the Michigan Truth Squad, the Center for Michigan’s fact-checking project. She started her journalism career reporting on the Iowa caucuses for The (Cedar Rapids) Gazette. Susan has hiked over 5,000 solo miles across four continents and climbed more than 80 mountains. She also enjoys dragging her husband and two kids along, even if no one else wants to sleep in a tent anymore.

MORE FROM AUTHOR