Lee Chatfield allegations fuel push for ethics reform in Michigan Legislature
McBroom wants to tighten campaign finance rules in response to reports from Bridge Michigan and other outlets detailing how Chatfield used political funds to fuel extensive travel and a lavish lifestyle.
“For our government to work well, there has to be a lot of public trust,” McBroom said in Bridge Michigan on Thursday. “A lack of transparency only breeds suspicion.”
While lawmakers are still negotiating the details of a final agreement on ethics reform, possibilities also include some form of personal financial disclosure for lawmakers, new lobbying rules and expanded access to public records.
Chatfield, whose attorney has denied any unlawful actions, left office at the end of 2020 but is back in the public eye amid a state police investigation into allegations he sexually assaulted a woman who would later become his sister-in-law, from when she was a teenage student at a Christian academy where he taught.
A lawyer for the woman, Rebekah Chatfield, said police were also looking into Chatfield’s finances during her tenure, including her use of several political action committees and a nonprofit nonprofit that paid staff and family members for unspecified work outside the Capitol.
Former colleagues told Bridge that Chatfield had extravagant taste and traveled so frequently that he sometimes overruled House votes on Thursdays to catch planes, a lifestyle seemingly out of reach for a father of five who earned $95,985 as Speaker of the State House.
Records show the Peninsula Fund, a Chatfield-linked nonprofit run by two of its top legislative staffers, spent nearly half a million dollars on travel and food in 2020 alone But IRS rules do not require the black money fund to disclose donors or explain how its money was spent.
While nonprofit political organizations are generally governed by federal rules, McBroom told Bridge he was exploring “if it’s still possible for us to make sure lawmakers who have it are making disclosure” at the level. of State.
“Strengthening our disclosure, at the very least, as well as stricter parameters around whether or not we allow staff and family members to receive salaries from these accounts, is a very important discussion that we need to have,” McBroom said.
Michigan has consistently ranked as one of the worst states in the nation for ethics and transparency laws, but the House last year approved a series of bipartisan reforms that advocates say could help boost public trust in government and the legislative process.
A package would expand public access to government records, ending a blanket exemption for all state lawmakers and the governor’s office.
Another would ban lawmakers from immediately becoming paid lobbyists after leaving office and require them to disclose personal financial information to a privy council, among other things.
The legislation has so far stalled in the Senate, where Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, has expressed concerns about the two packages. He said he was concerned financial disclosures could be used against lawmakers or deter potential candidates from seeking public office.
But Shirkey told reporters last week that negotiations have been going on behind the scenes since the House passed last summer. He said he thinks “we’re very close to having the ethics package ready to go” in the Senate.
“I’ve never been shy about the ethical parts, except for the declaration of personal assets,” Shirkey said, noting that he wanted “it to be defined and written in a way that I think it’s can be controlled so that this does not happen”. be used against someone or deter quality people from wanting to run for office.”
Michigan is one of two states it does not require state legislators to disclose their financial interests, making it difficult to know whether they support bills that personally benefit them.
Transparency advocates have expressed concerns about personal financial disclosure legislation passed by the House and fear Shirkey’s pending reviews could effectively oust him.
Instead of requiring lawmakers to publicly disclose finances, the House plan would require them to file reports with a legislative ethics oversight committee that would operate in secret and would not be subject to the law on ethics. state open meetings.
“To me, the only financial disclosure that matters is financial disclosure to the people,” said Rep. Dave LaGrand, a Grand Rapids Democrat who has pushed for more aggressive public disclosure bills that have not moved forward.
“Anything else is a distraction at best and counterproductive at worst,” he said.
Chatfield’s allegations are the latest in a series of personal controversies in the Michigan Legislature this session.
State Representative Jewell Jones, D-Inkster, is headed for trial for drunk driving, carrying a weapon and resisting arrest charges after erratic driving last spring. State Representative Brian Posthumus, R-Cannon Township, was sentenced in July to 15 days in jail and two years probation for Drunk Driving.
prosecutors in october decided not to file a criminal complaint against State Rep. Steve Marino, Township of R-Harrison, after fellow Rep. Mari Manoogian, D-Birmingham, accused him of sending threatening text messages when a romantic relationship ended.
As the Senate considers changes to the ethics program, McBroom told Bridge Michigan he also hopes to add tougher transparency rules for public universities.
Last month, the University of Michigan’s board of trustees met behind closed doors and voted to fire President Mark Schlissel after what had been a secret investigation into an inappropriate relationship with a school employee. .
In recent weeks, Republicans and Democrats in the Michigan House have urged the Senate to follow through on the ethics reform package the lower house approved in June.
“Now more than ever, we see the importance of legislative ethics and the need for state laws that require it,” State Rep. Pamela Hornberger of R-Chesterfield Township said in a statement. communicated last week.