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Chantia Lewis sentenced to 30 days in jail, 3 years probation

Lewis was accused of using more than $20,000 in campaign funds to pay for personal expenses
Posted at 11:51 AM, Aug 25, 2022
and last updated 2022-08-25 18:23:27-04

MILWAUKEE — Former Alderwoman Chantia Lewis was sentenced to 30 days in jail and three years probation during a hearing on Thursday.

Lewis was accused of using more than $20,000 in campaign funds to pay for personal expenses like credit card bills, car repairs, and rent.

"I'm sorry I'm here even wasting your time and to be on the docket at all," Lewis said.

This is the first time we've been able to hear Lewis in her own words. She called the last year the most traumatic event in her life.

Lewis took responsibility for her actions, though she fell short of admitting she did any of this intentionally.

"This has been an unequivocal, bad judgment and bad decision making and mistake on my part," Lewis said. "It's not something I did nefariously or with malice. I'm not that type of person."

"She abandoned her district and stole money from her own," Assistant District Attorney Matthew Westphal said. "This is a very serious offense. There was a consistent pattern of deceit to hide misappropriation."

Westphal detailed Lewis' repeated misuse of funds as reason for this not being a simple accounting mistake; referring to it as 'the epitome of money laundering.'

In addition, Westphal says Lewis is still misusing her campaign finance account. He says last month, Lewis filed a new campaign finance report with new contributions from community members, totaling $3,000 to $4,000. Also, he says she accepted a $30,000 loan for her mother meant to pay for her defense. She allegedly used that $3,000 to $4,000 to pay back her mother's loan.

"That's at best depicting a person who does not understand," Westphal said. "At worst, it's a person attempting to launder money and attempting to use money for purposes they're not allowed for. It's unethical if not illegal."

Lewis told the courts she was advised by her counsel to create a defense fund in this manner. Lewis' representation tells TMJ4, they have no idea what Lewis is talking about in regard to the creation of a defense fund within her campaign finance account.

"I was trying to do what I was supposed to do," Lewis said. "Without knowing to do that, I asked for advice. This is the consequences, yet again. I was given bad advice. I will absolutely own responsibility for the bad decision making and the bad process of a reimbursement process. I literally did not try to take money from people. That's not who I am or what I do."

Lewis is not the first Milwaukee elected official to be accused of improprieties with money while in office. Westphal detailed five alderpeople who were convicted of financial crimes involving bribery, wire fraud, extortion and embezzlement. In each case, they faced jail time, ranging from four months to a maximum of 6 and a half years; the most time was for Michael McGee's federal case.

However, Lewis' attorney argued her wrongdoing was not to the level of any of the previous alderpeople. Michael Chernin has worked on campaign finance lawsuits in the past, including several Westphal mentioned.

"It was solicitation of bribes to make modifications to licenses or zoning applications for special use permits," Chernin said. "I'd like to draw a great distinction between Lewis and the other alderpersons. In all of those cases, bribery was involved. If [Lewis's case] doesn't show an absence of guile on her part, what it does demonstrate is that she actually had very little clue as to the appropriate way to conduct a campaign fund."

Chernin focused on the positive work Lewis has done in the 9th District and her service in the Air Force.

"I want Ms. Lewis to understand, this does not in anyway depreciate the work she's done," Chernin said.

Judge Milton Childs accepted Lewis' apology on behalf of Milwaukee County. However, despite her sincerity and record of positive work in the city, he rendered a punishment of three years probation and 30 days in the Milwaukee County House of Corrections.

"It may sound hard, but you've lost credibility," Childs said. "You brought a stain to the office and government as a whole. But you're taking steps towards rebuilding that trust. That's the important part of it. Take care of yourself first and build trust in regards to family, friends and the community as a whole."

Childs made a point that jail time was important towards acknowledging wrongdoing. Saying there needs to be "a sting" when it comes to punishment.

"Clearly, the City of Milwaukee is a victim," Childs said. "The victim is the community, the 9th District. They don't have representation. No voice with the Common Council. Your family too, they're victims for having to go through this as well."

However, Lewis may never spend a day physically behind bars. Childs approved for house arrest, should the HOC approve it for Lewis. The HOC tells the I-Team, decisions on house arrest are strictly related to the charges at hand.

"All available information is being gathered and assessed in order to make an appropriate determination on how and where the time will be served," Superintendent Chantell Jewell tells TMJ4 News in a statement. "At this time, we are not able to give an estimated time frame on when that decision will be made."

Lewis pleaded no contest to count 5 (Campaign Finance - Accept Unlawful Disbursement - Intentional - Over $100) and counts 2, 3 and 4 were dismissed but could still be read in during sentencing (Theft-Business Setting >$10,000, Theft-False Representation <=$2500 and Campaign Finance - False Reports & Statements - intentional - Over $100).

She pleaded guilty to Misconduct/Office-Act/Excess Authority, a felony.

Lewis, 42, represented Milwaukee's northwest aldermanic district. She was first elected to the Common Council in 2016 and was re-elected in April 2020 without a challenger. She joined a crowded field of Democrats in announcing her candidacy for U.S. Senate in 2021.

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