MILWAUKEE — Milwaukee Alderwoman Chantia Lewis pleaded guilty to one felony charge after prosecutors accused her of using more than $20,000 in campaign funds to pay for personal expenses like credit card bills, car repairs and rent.
Effective today, Lewis is no longer representing Milwaukee's 9th District as an Alderwoman. Next month we will learn what sentence the judge hands down for Lewis.
Her attorneys previously argued a series of accounting errors were to blame.
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.
Chantia Lewis will immediately forfeit her right to office, attorneys tell TMJ4 News. According to proceedings in court, she’s officially no longer the Alderwoman of the 9th District as of today.
"There is a requirement, upon a judgment of conviction entered for a campaign finance violation," Assistant District Attorney Matthew Westphal said. "This court shall enter a supplemental judgment, forfeiting Ms. Lewis' eligibility and right to office. I ask that order be entered at this time."
Lewis will be back for sentencing on Aug. 25. The State of Wisconsin is recommending 12 months in the House of Corrections for Count 1, and 3.5 years in the state prison for Count 5. The State is recommending this sentence will be imposed and stayed for 3 years of probation, meaning she wouldn’t serve jail time for Count 5 but would have probation for the length of the sentence.
This does not mean she’s absolutely going to jail, but the judge will take the State's recommendation into consideration at next month’s hearing. Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge Milton Childs does not have to take the State's recommendation and could impose a penalty up to the maximum for the charges; both of which carry a maximum of 3 1/2 years and up to a $10,000 fine.
"I can't be presumptuous to what the sentence from the judge will be," Attorney Michael Chernin said. "The answer is, [jail time] is clearly an option for the court but I have no idea what the judge is going to do."
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.
Her removal leaves three of the 15 council seats empty in Milwaukee. Cavalier Johnson left his seat after he was elected mayor earlier this year and Nik Kovac left the council to become Johnson’s budget director.
Mayor Cavalier Johnson issued the following statement:
“I believe in accountability for people who violate the law, and today’s guilty plea by Alderwoman Chantia Lewis is an important step forward in holding her accountable for her financial misdeeds.
City officials hold a public trust, and every one of us has an obligation to the people of Milwaukee to operate with the highest level of integrity. I expect that of every member of my administration and of all my colleagues in elective office.”
Lewis clear now and pleads guilty to count 1.— Shaun Gallagher (@ShaunGalNews) July 18, 2022
She was hesitant to say she’s satisfied with the representation she has from Attorney Michael Chernin.
A criminal complaint filed by the District Attorney’s Office says from April of 2016 to June of 2020, Lewis allegedly took at least $21,666.70 from her campaign finances and city reimbursements.
The criminal complaint alleges Lewis double-dipped money from her city and campaign accounts to fund business trips.
The criminal complaint says, "She misappropriated funds belonging to her campaign by depositing campaign contributions into her personal bank accounts, as well as using campaign funds to pay for personal expenses. Lewis further falsely represented to the City of Milwaukee that she was owed reimbursement for expenses incurred on City-travel, when in fact she paid for those expenses out of her campaign account. All of these behaviors were in excess of her authority and were done without consent."
The complaint alleges Lewis took 13 different trips, including personal and business stops in Pittsburgh, Houston, Washington D.C., the Wisconsin Dells and three different trips to Las Vegas while falsely requesting reimbursements totaling $3,291.11 from her campaign and $2,249.75 from the City of Milwaukee. In total, she allegedly "doubled-dipped" $5,540.86 in these travel expenses.
Further, the complaint alleges Lewis deposited campaign donation checks into her personal account and was pulling money for personal expenses, like rent, car repairs and credit card bills, totaling $16,125.84.
In addition to the travel reimbursements and campaign donations, the complaint alleges 22 different ATM cash withdrawals that are unaccounted for, totaling $5,590.50.
The complaint ends by alleging, "All these actions were in violation of that position of trust. As a result of Lewis actions, she obtained a total benefit in excess of $20,000."
Chernin explained Lewis' plea on count 5 is due to any civil suits that may stem from the criminal charges.
"Count 5 references disbursement of funds and there could potentially be civil liability for that," Chernin said. "I spoke to the State and they agree that we could not enter a guilty plea but a no contest plea so her admissions could not be used against her in any civil context."
Under the State's recommendation, Lewis would be responsible for paying back full restitution to all victims.
Alderwoman Lewis was first elected to the 9th District, representing the city's Northwest side, in 2016 and reelected in 2020. In addition to serving on seven committees, Lewis is also the vice chair of the Council's Public Safety and Health Committee. Her biography incorrectly states she is the vice president of the Finance and Personnel Committee.
She announced her run for Wisconsin’s US Senate Seat in July.
Lewis previously said in part, "We will make the necessary corrections. But make no mistake, I am innocent of any criminal wrongdoing. As a first-time candidate in 2016, and like many first-time grassroot candidates, I self-funded much of my campaign. My campaign was run by my family and a team of amazing supporters. We did our very best to run a positive and compliant campaign. I am confident, that once this is over, I will be absolved."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.