Former Milwaukee Ald. Chantia Lewis was sentenced Thursday to 30 days in custody as a condition of three years’ probation following her conviction last month on two felonies related to her conduct in office.
House arrest could serve as an alternative to time in custody, if approved by the Milwaukee County House of Correction, Judge Milton Childs ordered. He also approved release for work and child care.
If Lewis violates the terms of probation, she would face time in the state prison system.
Childs said the length of time over which her actions continued was concerning and cited the phrase, “With great power comes great responsibility.”
“We do hold up individuals in public office to a higher level than others and therefore we are held accountable and more is expected from us in regards to decisions that we make,” Childs said before sentencing Lewis.
Lewis was removed from office in July after pleading guilty to a count of misconduct in public office and no contest to a count of intentionally accepting an illegal campaign finance disbursement.
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 Lewis 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 legal limits.
Lewis made a base salary of $73,222 a year as a Common Council member.
While Assistant District Attorney Matthew Westphal argued that Lewis had “completely disregarded” her oath of office, Lewis and her attorney, Michael Chernin, framed her actions as the result of her lack of awareness about campaign finance laws.
Lewis said before she was sentenced that she had exhibited “bad judgment and bad decision making and a mistake on my part.” She said she was not the type of person to act nefariously or with malice and that she acted on bad advice and bad counsel.
“I thought running for office was traumatizing,” Lewis said. “This has been the single most traumatizing event in my entire life. I have absolutely tried to live my life in a manner where I would not get in trouble because I was too afraid to get in trouble and I wanted to be an example to my children and people who looked up to me.”
But Westphal argued a mistake happens just once, while he said Lewis “started stealing immediately upon taking office and continued lying and stealing throughout her campaign.”
“This is not the confusion of a newly elected official,” Westphal said. “This was a protracted effort to defraud her campaign and the city. This isn’t just about stealing money. This is about violating the public trust.”
Westphal had recommended that she be sentenced to 12 months in the House of Correction plus three years of probation, with a prison sentence hanging over her if she were to violate the conditions of probation.
Lewis, Chernin and Westphal declined to be interviewed after the hearing.
Childs was also able to consider two felonies and a misdemeanor that were dismissed and read in as part of Lewis’ plea agreement.
He and others in court cited about a dozen letters sent to the court in support of Lewis, including from US Rep. Gwen Moore and State Rep. David Bowen. They did not include any from Lewis’ Common Council colleagues.
Moore asked that Childs consider the totality of Lewis’ life and community service at sentencing but also said she was “deeply disappointed and mortified by her betrayal of the public trust.”
Ald. Mark Borkowski was the only member of the council present at the sentencing.
A restitution hearing was scheduled for Oct. 7.
Lewis was charged in September.
She had represented District 9 on the city’s northwest side since 2016 and had briefly entered the Democratic race for US Senate.
The district that Lewis represented is currently one of four without a council member. Three of the unrepresented seats — Districts 1, 2 and 9 — are on the city’s north side.
Lewis’ District 9 seat will be filled in the April 2023 election.
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.
In recent weeks, Johnson tapped Ald. Ashanti Hamilton to serve as director of the city’s Office of Violence Prevention. Hamilton has said he would resign from his District 1 seat as soon as the “onboarding process” for his new position is finished.
Council President José G. Pérez expressed a “willingness and commitment to expediting the process” to ensure the district was represented, Hamilton said when his appointment was announced.
Contact Alison Dirr at 414-224-2383 or [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @AlisonDirr.
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