Gov. Gretchen Whitmer says Michigan needs ethics reforms amid Chatfied probe

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2023-01-16

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer vowed Wednesday to enact laws that would make records from within her office and the Legislature publicly available and said Michigan needs to examine loopholes in lobbying policies that potentially contributed to the actions of former House Speaker Lee Chatfield.


Chatfield, a Republican who left the House at the end of 2020, is under criminal investigation by Attorney General Dana Nessel. The Detroit News reported Tuesday that Michael Frezza, an assistant attorney general, told an Ingham County judge in November the probe involved other state officials, lobbyists and governmental appointees "at high levels."


Speaking to reporters Wednesday in Lansing, Whitmer made her most specific comments to date about potential reforms that could result from the ongoing Chatfield investigation and media reporting on his behavior in Lansing. The Democratic governor said there's work that incoming lawmakers want to do on improving oversight and accountability.


"People deserve to know that their leaders are looking out for them, not themselves, that they are following the law and if the law is not tight enough, we'll change it," Whitmer said.


The governor also said she was "very interested" to know what Frezza's phrase "governmental appointees, at high levels" meant.


Whitmer earned a second four-year term in the Nov. 8 election, and Democrats won control of both the state House and Senate for the first time in 40 years.


The Attorney General's probe into Chatfield launched in January after his sister-in-law, Rebekah Chatfield, accused him of sexually assaulting her beginning when she was 15 years old. Through his attorney, Lee Chatfield has denied wrongdoing and said their relationship was a years-long consensual affair among adults.


Search warrant affidavits obtained by The Detroit News in October revealed investigators were examining allegations Lee Chatfield was part of a "criminal enterprise," potentially involving embezzlement, bribery, campaign finance violations and controlled substances.


A Detroit News investigation last week found that Chatfield repeatedly provided favorable treatment to clients of the lobbying firm Governmental Consultant Services Inc. (GCSI) while receiving personal benefits in a relationship that exposed weaknesses in the ethics laws.


The former speaker's siblings got jobs in 2020 working for one GCSI client, and he rented an apartment from an entity controlled by another, an association that advocated on behalf of auto dealers. The arrangement was never publicly disclosed while Chatfield held the top position in the House.


In addition, he raised money for a nonprofit, the Peninsula Fund, which didn't have to disclose its donors to the public but reported spending $454,337 on food, dining, travel and entertainment in 2020.


Whitmer said she wants to look at some of the loopholes in the state's lobbying law that might have contributed to Chatfield's alleged actions.


"We've got to understand it, learn from it and fix areas where we can," Whitmer said.


The governor said the Democrats who will control Lansing beginning in January will expand open records standards to her office and lawmakers. As it stands, Michigan is one of two states where the governor and lawmakers are exempt from freedom of information requests, shielding their communications with lobbyists from public disclosure.


Whitmer said she didn't trust the GOP-controlled Legislature to implement equal standards for the governor's office and their own offices for releasing documents.


"We're doing it in one fell swoop, and we're all going to play by the same rules," she said.


Whitmer said she views the first six months of her second term as "really important" as Democrats will hold narrow majorities in both the House and Senate.


The early policies she hopes will pass the Legislature include easing taxes on retirement income and expanding the earned income tax credit for low-income workers.


"That's just the start," Whitmer said.


Democrats will hold 20 of the 38 state Senate seats and 56 of the 110 House seat to begin the 2023-2024 term.