Milwaukee Ald. Chantia Lewis, who is running for the U.S. Senate, was charged Tuesday with five criminal counts accusing her of taking more than $20,000 in campaign funds and false travel reimbursements from the city.
The criminal complaint said Lewis used campaign funds to attend a Florida worship conference, pay tuition for classes at Agape Love Bible College and go on family trips to Georgia and the Wisconsin Dells. She also allegedly spent campaign funds on basic personal expenses, such as car and credit card bills, vehicle repairs and rent on a Milwaukee apartment, according to the complaint.
On top of that, the complaint said Lewis made more than 20 inappropriate ATM cash withdrawals totaling $5,590.50 from her campaign fund between 2016 and 2020.
In all, the 43-page complaint, filed by Milwaukee County prosecutors, stated Lewis “defrauded the City of Milwaukee and her campaign, collectively, of at least $21,666.70.”
Lewis, a Democrat, makes a base salary of $73,222 a year as a Common Council member.
She is a pastor at Kingdom Faith Fellowship Church.
Her attorney, Jason D. Luczak, told the Journal Sentinel that Lewis is innocent of the charges and that he would be filing a motion to dismiss them before her Sept. 29 initial court appearance. The defense believes the issues are better categorized as accounting errors, he said.
“We will make the necessary corrections,” Lewis said in a statement. “But make no mistake, I am innocent of any criminal wrongdoing.”
The charges prompted Common Council President Cavalier Johnson to remove Lewis from “all committee assignment duties.” That includes her role as vice-chair of the Public Safety and Health Committee.
“Make no mistake that our judicial system presumes that every individual is considered innocent until proven guilty in court,” he said in a statement. “However, until this matter is resolved, I am moving without hesitation to protect the institution of the Milwaukee Common Council as well as the City of Milwaukee.”
The criminal complaint said she filed campaign finance reports in which she provided inaccurate information about her account balances, contributions and disbursements. She reports having a campaign balance of $3.66 in her January filing.
“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,” the complaint stated. “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.”
The complaint also accuses Lewis of structuring a campaign contribution to avoid the contribution limit requirements and misappropriating campaign funds by using them for personal reasons.
The charges against Lewis are misconduct in public office, embezzlement of more than $10,000, theft by fraud of less than $2,500, intentionally filing a false campaign finance report, and intentionally accepting an unlawful campaign finance disbursement.
The embezzlement charge, the most serious one, carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a $25,000 fine.
Echoes of cases brought against other aldermen
Lewis, 41, was elected to the Common Council in 2016 when she beat out incumbent Ald. Robert Puente to represent the 9th District on the city’s far northwest side. She was re-elected in April 2020 without a challenger.
The charges are similar to those brought against members of the Common Council nearly 20 years ago. Three council members — Rosa Cameron, Jeff Pawlinksi and Paul Henningsen — were convicted of public corruption in cases brought by federal prosecutors.
More recently, former Ald. Willie Wade was sentenced to four months behind bars last year for taking $30,000 to try to influence a sitting alderman’s vote on a strip club proposal.
The Lewis complaint said Milwaukee County prosecutors first turned up the problems with Lewis’ financial filings in May 2020 when they reviewed the campaign finance reports and travel reimbursements by Milwaukee aldermen.
Luczak said the audit occurred over “many months.”
“When we found out about it, we fully cooperated,” he said. “We have been working with the DA’s Office to try to come to a resolution that did not lead to criminal charges being filed, but they’ve reached obviously different conclusions than we do.”
Other documents not included in the complaint, such as bank records, shed more light on the situation, Luczak said. He was hired in February after subpoenas requesting Lewis’ bank statements made her aware of the investigation into her campaign finances, he said.
According to the complaint, Lewis — who has twice filed for bankruptcy — accepted nine contributions totaling $2,725 from various groups and individuals and put them in her personal checking accounts rather than her campaign fund.
Those campaign donations, ranging from $50 to $775, including money from Milwaukee labor leader Martha Love, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Council 32 and several businesses in her district. The complaint noted that her checking account would have been overdrawn had she not deposited these campaign donations into it.
Money for trip to the Wisconsin Dells
Milwaukee County prosecutors also cited 13 instances in which they allege the second-term alderwoman used her campaign funds for inappropriate personal expenditures totaling $13,400.
Among other things, the complaint said, Lewis paid $3,705 to Explore America for various plane flights by her daughter. She also is accused of using nearly $400 in campaign dollars for a family trip to Georgia in 2016 and another $687 for a Wisconsin Dells trip in 2017.
“There is no reason that a local public official who deals solely with City of Milwaukee issues would need to expend campaign funds at Mt. Olympus Resort or the arcade there,” the complaint said.
In February 2020, the complaint said, she used her campaign account to cover $318 in expenses for her to attend a worship conference at Deeper Fellowship Church in Orlando, Florida. She also tapped her campaign war chest for $252 to cover tuition at the Agape Love Bible College in Milwaukee in 2018 — when she had less than $74 in her personal checking account.
“This shows that, but for Lewis misappropriating campaign funds, she would not have been able to pay this expense,” the complaint said. “This provides further evidence that the payment made from the campaign account was a misappropriation of campaign funds to pay a personal expense.”
The complaint said Lewis also used campaign funds to pay for apartment rental ($4,884), car repairs ($528), vehicle payment ($2,045) and USAA credit card bills ($418). At the time of the payment, her credit card was overdrawn by more than $1,100.
Prosecutors also found numerous problems with her campaign finance reports.
For instance, in March 2019, Lewis reported loaning her campaign $2,400, but the complaint said that never happened. Instead, she loaned $260 with money that it appears she took out of her credit card account. Eight months later, Lewis wrote herself a check from her campaign account for $1,000, which she then deposited in her personal checking account.
Neither the deposit nor the withdrawal were reported on her campaign filings, according to the complaint.
“Lewis intentionally failed to make a full report of all contributions, disbursements, and obligations received, made, and incurred,” the complaint said.
Complaint alleges ‘double-dipping’
Lewis is also accused of “double-dipping” by requesting reimbursement from the city for city-related travel expenses after using campaign funds for those costs. She received reimbursement from the city but did not repay the campaign, instead putting the city funds into her personal account, the complaint said.
“Between 2016 and 2020, Lewis participated in numerous City-sponsored travel in which she engaged in this double-dipping,” the complaint stated.
Some of the amounts were smaller, including $157 for a hotel in Minneapolis, for instance. Others were much higher, including $930.99 in campaign funds she is accused of misappropriating for expenses related to a trip to Las Vegas for a retail real estate convention in 2018.
Trips spanned from 2016 through August 2019 and included gatherings in Pittsburgh, Las Vegas, Minneapolis and Florida.
In all, the complaint tallies a $2,250 loss to the city and a $3,291 loss to her campaign.
This isn’t the first time that questions have been raised about Lewis’ finances.
Last year, the Journal Sentinel reported that Lewis asked her friends and family members to send her cash or gift cards in a pair of Facebook solicitations to celebrate her 40th birthday.
“This was not open to the public,” Lewis said in January 2020, declining to say how much she pocketed. “This is not campaign-related at all.”
Lewis was also the lead sponsor in 2018 of a plan to have taxpayers boost the pay for Common Council members by 13.6% — some $10,000 a year — over four years. The plan was killed just days after it came to light.
Mayor Tom Barrett responds
Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said Tuesday he had not had an opportunity to look at the criminal complaint.
“Any time you’re talking about public trust, I take that very, very seriously and am very concerned about that,” he said. “I’m also, I think as we all recognize, well aware of the fact that individuals are presumed innocent until proven guilty. So what I want to do is I want to take a look at the complaint and then decide what steps to take after that.”
Lewis announced her long-shot Democratic bid for the U.S. Senate in July, five months after learning that she was under investigation by prosecutors. Ten others are running for the Democratic nomination for the seat held by U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, who has not decided if he will run again.
“We need a U.S. Senator who will fight to protect our democracy, fight for working families and value all people,” she said in a video to launch her candidacy. “Perhaps, a woman like me, a mom, a vet, a fighter.
“I’m fighting for everybody who’s been told they can’t. Those who have been shut out from obtaining the American dream. It’s time for our voices to be heard.”
Journal Sentinel reporters Mary Spicuzza and Vanessa Swales contributed to this story.
Daniel Bice at (414) 313-6684 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @DanielBice or on Facebook at fb.me/daniel.bice.