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Wisconsin US Senate candidate pleads guilty to misconduct in office

The Milwaukee politician’s mixed guilty and no contest plea to two of five counts she faced bars her from holding elected office in the future.

MILWAUKEE (CN) — A Milwaukee alderwoman who last summer entered the crowded Democratic primary race for a Wisconsin U.S. Senate seat pleaded guilty to felony misconduct in public office on Monday in a campaign finance case which seems to have effectively ended her career in elected office.

Alderwoman Chantia Lewis, a Democrat, was charged last September in Milwaukee County Circuit Court with filing false campaign finance reports inaccurately representing her campaign account balances and activity, depositing campaign contributions in her personal bank accounts, attempting to thwart campaign contribution limit requirements and using campaign funds for personal expenses.

According to the criminal complaint, from 2016 to 2020, Lewis, 42, spent more than $13,000 in campaign funds on personal expenses and around $3,200 in campaign funds during out-of-state travel for city of Milwaukee business, and deposited about $2,700 in campaign checks into her personal bank accounts. She also arranged to be fraudulently reimbursed by the city for more than $2,000 in travel funds, the complaint says.

Prosecutors specifically allege Lewis fraudulently sought to be paid back by the city for expenses she incurred traveling to conferences and conventions in Pittsburgh, Las Vegas, Houston, Miami and other places, but paid for that travel from her campaign account and deposited reimbursement funds into her personal bank account.

The charging document additionally claims the alderwoman tapped campaign money for family trips to Georgia and Wisconsin Dells, a trip to a worship conference at the Deeper Fellowship Church in Orlando, tuition costs at Agape Love Bible College in Milwaukee, payments to a Milwaukee car repair shop and rent for her Milwaukee apartment, as well as illegal ATM withdrawals and payments for credit card bills.

Lewis was charged with four felonies, two alleging campaign finance violations, and a theft by fraud misdemeanor. A felony embezzlement charge carried the heaviest penalty, including up to a $25,000 fine and a maximum of 10 years in prison, or both. The alderwoman has been free on a $1,000 signature bond since September.

On Monday, Assistant District Attorney Matthew Westphal and Lewis’ lawyer, Milwaukee defense attorney Michael Chernin, said the parties had negotiated to read in and dismiss three of the five charges she faced, including the embezzlement felony and a felony for filing a false campaign finance report.

Leftover were the felony for misconduct in public office and a campaign finance felony for intentionally accepting an unlawful disbursement. The state recommended one year in jail for the former and a 3 1/2-year sentence split between 18 months' prison time and two years' extended supervision to be stayed for probation for the latter. Westphal also included full restitution for all victims and a judgment barring Lewis from holding office as additional conditions.

Lewis, who appeared remotely after showing symptoms of Covid-19 on Sunday, ultimately pleaded guilty to public misconduct in office and no contest to the campaign finance charge.

At first, the alderwoman resisted admitting she knowingly and intentionally committed misconduct in office and said she did not agree “that I was aware of the process and how to do a campaign finance report.”

Chernin clarified that Lewis did her own bookkeeping while admitting that “there were disbursements from her campaign account that should not have occurred,” though he said she did it “out of an absence of knowledge.”

Judge Milton Childs and Westphal questioned whether this really qualified as pleading guilty. After a brief pause in proceedings for an off-the-record conversation between Lewis and Chernin, Lewis agreed that she knew her conduct was in excess of her authority and affirmed her guilty plea. She did not contest any elements of the remaining campaign finance charge.

Childs entered a judgment of conviction into the record and a supplemental judgment declaring forfeiture of Lewis’ right to hold office. Having pleaded out of her trial, Lewis next faces sentencing at a hearing the court scheduled for the morning of Aug. 25. Childs could still impose the maximum penalties for both charges at sentencing, amounting to 3 1/2 years in prison and $10,000 in fines per charge.

First elected in 2016 and reelected in 2020, Lewis served on the Milwaukee Common Council, the legislative policy-making body for the city of Milwaukee. She represented the city’s 9th Aldermanic District, covering much of the city’s farthest northwestern region. Lewis was officially removed from office as a consequence of Monday's court orders.

Democratic Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson, at the time Milwaukee Common Council president, immediately relieved Lewis of her committee assignments when the complaint was filed in September, though he reserved any judgment as to her guilt or innocence while the matter played out in court.

Last summer, Lewis threw her hat in the ring for the closely watched 2022 midterm race for a U.S. Senate seat currently occupied by Ron Johnson of Oshkosh, a Republican. Though Lewis’ Milwaukee office and campaign staff have not provided an answer to repeated recent inquiries about the status of her dormant Senate campaign, Monday’s proceedings seemingly confirm the end of her run for national office.

The field for the Democratic primary on Aug. 9 is led by frontrunners Mandela Barnes, Wisconsin's lieutenant governor, and Alex Lasry, an executive with the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks, in addition to state treasurer Sarah Godlewski, Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson and others. Lewis did not join those candidates at a televised debate in Milwaukee on Sunday night.

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