Advance Notice: Briefs

Wentworth defends House Republicans over response to Chatfield allegations

By: - November 18, 2022 3:34 pm

House Speaker Jason Wentworth, Jan. 12, 2022 | Laina G. Stebbins

As he prepares to vacate the leadership of the Michigan House, Speaker Jason Wentworth (R-Farwell) defended his party’s handling of allegations against the man he succeeded.

Wentworth, who is term-limited and will leave office at the end of the year, spoke to reporters Thursday during a media roundtable during which he said House Republicans had planned on hiring a third-party investigator to conduct an internal investigation into allegations of criminal sexual assault against former House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) made by his sister-in-law. 

However, Wentworth said Attorney General Dana Nessel’s office asked that they not do so, which was confirmed by an AG spokesperson.

Amber McCann told the Detroit Free Press that Nessel wanted to avoid any “unintended impact.” The Michigan State Police turned over their investigation of Chatfield to Nessel’s office in September.

A Wentworth spokesperson had previously said that the House was not interested in launching a probe. Wentworth had declined to answer questions from several outlets.

Chatfield’s sister-in-law, Rebekah Chatfield, said he began sexually assaulting her more than a decade ago, when she was just 15 or 16 and he was a teacher at his father’s Christian school. He has also been accused of running a “criminal enterprise” out of his office while still serving as House speaker.

Chatfield, through his attorney, has “vehemently” denied the allegations, and described the relationship with his sister-in-law as consensual.

House Speaker Lee Chatfield at the Mackinac Policy Conference, May 30, 2019 | Andrew Roth

Acknowledging that the charges were “very serious criminal allegations,” Wentworth said House Republicans had cooperated at all times with law enforcement, both with the Chatfield investigation as well as allegations that another member of the caucus, Rep. Daire Rendon (R-Lake City) had tampered with election equipment.

Rendon was one of nine individuals, including former Republican Attorney General nominee Matt DePerno, who are under investigation by a special prosecutor into whether they took part in a conspiracy to gain unauthorized access to, and then tamper with, election equipment and data after the 2020 election.

Wentworth accused Democrats, who won majorities in both the House and Senate on Nov. 8, of “politicizing” the allegations against Chatfield. 

“I think what the House Democrats are doing, it’s pretty sad,” said Wentworth, as reported by the Free Press. “I think there are real victims here. To play politics in a situation like this where there’s a fact of criminal investigation, I think they can throw shade on that investigation and potential future litigation from the former speaker on to the House.”

However, Joe Clark, House Democratic spokesman, told the Michigan Advance that they introduced a resolution calling for an investigation of Chatfield in March, “well before election season,” and that the only reason their push continued was a refusal by Speaker Wentworth to take any action on the matter. 

“This caucus has a long, documented history of standing on the side of ethics and transparency,” said Clark. “We didn’t pursue an investigation to score political points; we did so because it was the right thing to do for the public trust and, as Speaker Wentworth notes, precisely because there are real victims in these alleged crimes.”

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Jon King
Jon King

Jon King has been a journalist for more than 35 years. He is the Past President of the Michigan Associated Press Media Editors Association and has been recognized for excellence numerous times, most recently in 2021 with the Best Investigative Story by the Michigan Association of Broadcasters. He is also an adjunct faculty member at Cleary University. Jon and his family live in Howell, where he also serves on the Board of Directors for the Livingston Diversity Council.