Milwaukee Ald. Chantia Lewis was removed from office Monday after her conviction in Milwaukee County court on two felonies related to her conduct in office.
She pleaded guilty to a count of misconduct in public office and no contest to a count of intentionally accepting an illegal campaign finance disbursement.
Three other counts — two felonies and a misdemeanor — were dismissed and read into the record, meaning they could be considered at sentencing on Aug. 25.
The case is being overseen by Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Milton L. Childs.
Lewis, 42, appeared remotely because she had symptoms of COVID-19, her attorney Michael Chernin said.
Lewis made a base salary of $73,222 a year as a Common Council member. She represented the 9th Aldermanic District on the city's northwest side and briefly entered the Democratic race for U.S. Senate.
Prosecutors said she took at least $21,666 in campaign funds and false travel reimbursements from the city between 2016 and 2020.
The criminal complaint stated that she used campaign funds for family trips and basic personal expenses such as car and credit card bills, engaged in "double-dipping" by filing for reimbursement from the city for city-related travel expenses that she had actually paid out of her campaign account and violated campaign finance laws, including by structuring a campaign contribution to avoid the limits.
Lewis was charged in September.
Lewis contends she lacked knowledge
While Lewis' comments were mainly one-word responses to questions from Childs, at one point she said she did not "necessarily agree" with an element of the misconduct in office charge that states she knew that her conduct was illegal.
She said she did not agree "that I was aware of the process and how to do a campaign finance report."
That prompted Chernin to say that Lewis did her own bookkeeping and that her conduct violated the law. But, he said, she was arguing she did not know her conduct was illegal at that time.
"There were disbursements out of her campaign account that should not have occurred," he said. "So she knew that she was taking those funds out of her campaign account, and ... the conduct itself was knowing, but apparently what she's saying is that she did it out of the absence of knowledge."
However, Childs said if she were entering a guilty plea she would have to acknowledge that her conduct was outside of her authority, a stance with which Assistant District Attorney Matthew Westphal agreed.
"The knowledge element is not knowledge that she did something, it's knowledge of the illegality or forbidden nature of the conduct itself," Westphal said.
After a brief private conversation with Chernin, Lewis agreed to that element of the charge.
Prosecutor to argue for time in House of Correction
Westphal said he would argue at sentencing that Lewis spend 12 months in the Milwaukee County House of Correction followed by three years on probation.
Hanging over her were she to violate the terms of probation would be a 3½-year sentence in the state prison system — broken down by 18 months in prison and two years of extended supervision.
After the hearing, Chernin declined to say what sentence he would argue for, though he said at the hearing that mitigating circumstances would be part of their argument.
Childs does not have to follow the recommendation of the defense or prosecution and could impose the maximum penalties. Each of the charges on which Lewis was convicted carry a maximum penalty of 3½ years in the prison system and a fine of $10,000.
Lewis' removal leaves three open council seats
Lewis was removed from her seat under a state law that requires forfeiture of a right to office when convicted of a campaign finance violation, Westphal said in court.
Childs entered that order Monday.
Lewis' departure leaves three of the 15 Common Council seats vacant, after Mayor Cavalier Johnson left his District 2 seat after he was elected mayor earlier this year and Nik Kovac left his District 3 seat to become Johnson's budget director. Special elections for the District 2 and 3 seats will take place this fall.
It was not immediately clear when Lewis' seat would be filled.
Common Council President José G. Pérez must call a special election to be held after the Nov. 8 general election. Pérez told the Journal Sentinel he would work with his council colleagues and the city Election Commission to decide on a date for a special election.
"It is what it is and there are consequences for your actions," Pérez said of Lewis' removal. "We have been working with 12 alders for a while now, and our priority is to get the Second and Third filled, and now the Ninth."
The council has been functioning as if it had three vacancies because when Johnson was council president he removed Lewis from all committee assignment duties once the charges were filed against her.
In a statement Monday, Johnson called Lewis' guilty plea "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," he said. "I expect that of every member of my administration and of all my colleagues in elective office."
Ald. Mark Borkowski said while he considers Lewis "a dear friend," elected officials are not above the rules. He said he knew it did not bode well for her when he saw the length of the 43-page complaint.
"Obviously, the process took its course, and she's no longer on the Common Council," he said. "I'm very sorry because she's a wonderful person, she had a lot to offer the council. However, rules are rules, and we all have to play by them."
And, he said, it's challenging for the remaining council members to try to make decisions for districts that do not have a representative to advocate on the many issues that come before the council.
The criminal complaint states that Lewis used campaign funds for attendance at a worship conference in Florida, tuition at Agape Love Bible College, and family trips to Georgia and the Wisconsin Dells. She is also accused of using campaign funds on personal expenses such as car and credit card payments, vehicle repairs and rent on an apartment in Milwaukee.
The complaint also states that she provided inaccurate information about her campaign account balances, contributions and spending; put campaign contributions into her personal bank accounts; and filed for reimbursement from the city for city-related travel expenses that she had actually paid for out of her campaign account.
The complaint also states that she violated campaign finance laws, including through the structuring of a campaign contribution to avoid the limits.
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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Milwaukee Ald. Chantia Lewis guilty of felonies, removed from office