Traverse City Record-Eagle

Meijer-Acme Township Dispute

August 22, 2010

Editorial: Public interest in Meijer suit

Meijer Inc.'s latest effort to shield itself from public scrutiny is not in the best interests of the company or the public.

Monday in 13th Circuit Court, the Grand Rapids-based retailer will argue that a suit against it by its own insurance company should be put under seal, hidden from public view. Some courtroom proceedings even could be closed if Meijer prevails.

At issue is the insurance company's contention that it shouldn't be required to pay off on a claim for a loss that, in the insurance company's view, was of Meijer's own doing. The case stems from Meijer's admitted violation of state campaign finance laws in 2005 and 2007. In a bitter zoning dispute, the firm secretly funded an election campaign against a ballot issue and backed a failed recall attempt against Acme Township officials.

When it was discovered that Meijer-financed agents directed the campaign against Acme officials, the company agreed to pay a $190,000 fine for violating state election laws and millions more to the officeholders it tried to intimidate by filing personal lawsuits against them.

Now one of the insurance companies that Meijer wants to help cover its losses wants nothing of it. The company, American Home Assurance Co., argues — in layman's terms — that the losses were caused by Meijer's own actions and the insurance protection doesn't cover willful, illegal acts.

Meijer argues that the matter is one that should be kept from public view. Confidential company information is at stake, it said.

Judge Philip Rodgers should reject Meijer's arguments tomorrow. The written documents, potential future testimony and oral arguments should be in the public domain. This is a public issue involving the attempted subversion of duly elected public officials.

This is not a case involving Meijer's proprietary information related to merchandise pricing, for example. It's not about competitive advantage over Walmart, Tom's or Glen's. It's about public policy and the firm's secret attempt to circumvent the law.

To be sure, there are ways to handle side issues of a legitimate confidential nature. Judge Rodgers could hear arguments or review documents in his chambers.

But clamping a lid on the entire case effectively would bar the public from learning all the details — good, bad and ugly.

Simply because potentially embarrassing information — like who ordered what and why — might become public knowledge is not a legitimate excuse for closing a courtroom or hiding documents.

Just ask participants in a divorce action.

By arguing for courtroom secrecy, Meijer is making itself look like it has something more to hide. It has confessed to election-law violations and paid a price, but those affected by the company's actions — and the general public — have a right to know if there are any other details of the case lurking in the shadows.

Meijer clearly has a right to protect itself from other companies gleaning inside knowledge of its operations. But it should not be given a free pass to hide documents and motives.

The company's image has been tarnished by its own actions. No one else's. Its secret political forays in Acme Township should be disclosed completely.

In the final analysis, Meijer is doing itself no favors by creating a perception that relevant public-issue information is being shielded.

Its record should be open — as should the courtroom.

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