The Michigan Attorney General's office wants to restrict public access to search warrant records in its investigation of former state House Speaker Lee Chatfield, arguing the documents should remain shielded even though the Detroit Free Press and Bridge Michigan won a judge's order unsealing them.
The attorney general's maneuver to block the district court's ruling comes after the media outlets persuaded an Ingham County district judge earlier this month to unseal a series of search warrants and affidavits pertaining to the state's criminal probe of Chatfield.
54-A District Court Judge Stacia Buchanan scheduled the documents to be released Nov. 22. But when a Bridge Michigan reporter arrived at the courthouse to retrieve them, she was informed that the Michigan Attorney General's office had obtained an order holding up their release (called a stay) from Circuit Court Judge Wanda Stokes late the previous afternoon.
Stokes said she was blocking the documents' release until the AG had time to appeal Buchanan's lower-court ruling. In her order, Stokes also blocked the public release of "similarly situated files," which district court officials said they interpreted as a blanket suppression of all documents pertaining to the Chatfield investigation.
In seeking to keep the records secret, Assistant Attorney General Michael Frezza warned they contained "information that has not previously been released by the District court, including financial information from PACS and 501(c)(4) organizations that law enforcement believes may be involved in crimes."
Frezza also wrote that the warrants and affidavits name "elected officials, government employees and potential co-conspirators or confederates, as well as other misdeeds."
Neither Bridge nor the Free Press were notified by Nessel's office of its intent to challenge the document release or given an opportunity to contest it. Stokes immediately closed the case after her order.
The decision opens the door to the attorney general sitting on the public documents indefinitely, or at least until any formal results from the investigation are released. That, despite a state law that requires courts to release search warrants and affidavits 56 days after a warrant is issued, unless investigators convince a judge or magistrate to extend the suppression.
To do so, the government must show that continued suppression is necessary to protect an ongoing investigation or the privacy or safety of a victim or witness. And even then, state statute limits the duration of continued suppression.
But throughout the Chatfield investigation, police and staffers in the attorney general's office have sought and obtained indefinite suppression of those documents, arguing that releasing them would jeopardize their case.
Some of the warrants and affidavits that were set to be released to the Free Press and Bridge have now been kept from the public for nearly nine months.
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Bridge Michigan CEO John Bebow decried the state's maneuver as part of a pattern of state officials publicly voicing their commitment to government transparency, while attempting to shield their office's actions from public view.
"Once again, Bridge finds it necessary to invest resources in the perpetual fight for transparency in this state," Bebow said. "These search warrant affidavits were filed months and months ago, and they involve one of the most prominent elected officials in recent times. There is extreme public interest in this investigation, and we will continue to press for public knowledge of this matter."
State criminal investigators have examined Chatfield for nearly a year, after his sister-in-law told Bridge Michigan and police last December that the Republican from Levering began sexually assaulting her when she was a teenage student at the northern Michigan religious school where he formerly taught.
The allegations against Chatfield also raised new questions about his financial conduct while in office, after his brother Aaron Chatfield told Bridge Michigan that Lee Chatfield was "gone all the time" on trips, and frequently tapped Aaron to chauffeur him to strip clubs and rendezvous with women. Though Aaron's paycheck came from Grand River Strategies, a consulting firm hired to help run the House Republican Campaign Committee, he said he was essentially paid to work for Chatfield.
Investigators have conducted several known searches in the Chatfield case.
In addition to searching Aaron Chatfield's phone, Lee Chatfield's house and the Northern Michigan Christian Academy where Chatfield formerly taught, investigators raided the home of two key Chatfield associates in search of a host of financial records tied to political action committees and nonprofit corporations associated with Chatfield.
They also won court approval to obtain Lee Chatfield's email and bank records, according to affidavits court officials recently (they say, mistakenly) provided to the Detroit News but continue to shield from the broader public. In the affidavits, investigators said they suspected Chatfield of participating in a "criminal enterprise" including embezzlement, campaign finance violations and other misdeeds.
In court filings urging the district court to release the documents, the Free Press and Bridge argued that while investigators often have good reason to temporarily shield search warrant information from the public - to avoid tipping off the subject of a probe, or to protect the safety of witnesses, for instance - there was no evidence those circumstances applied to the Chatfield documents, in part because multiple records were already released to the News, which published stories on what they contained.
As Attorney General, Nessel frequently advocates publicly for people to understand and use the state's open records laws. She personally conducts training sessions on the state's Freedom of Information Act, at times calling for the laws to be expanded.
"You should have the ability to know what's going on with your tax dollars and inside the government bodies that represent you," she said at a July session, according to MLive.
Amber McCann, a spokeswoman for the attorney general's office, would not comment on the office's legal efforts to prevent the release of the documents.
"I realize your questions are about the arguments made in a pending civil matter," McCann said in an email last week.
"As I reiterated, the matter arose as a result of the release of warrant affidavits in an ongoing criminal investigation and I have no comment beyond what is contained within the filings."
The quest by the Free Press and Bridge for records led Buchanan to order the documents unshielded in a Nov. 8 opinion, ruling that the statute investigators cited as their reason for shielding the documents from public view only allows them to be shielded from the person whose property was searched.
"An investigation of a former high-ranking government official is underway, but information about that investigation appears to be suppressed by an order and purported orders that-even on their face-do not comply with applicable statutory Requirements," Free Press and Bridge attorney Robin Luce-Herrmann wrote in a motion seeking the documents' release. "This situation, therefore, is a prime example of why accountability is important."
Contact Dave Boucher: Dboucher@freepress.com. Contact Kelly House: firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Lee Chatfield records should be kept secret, AG Dana Nessel says