Traverse City Record-Eagle

January 22, 2010

Supreme Court ruling limits Meijer probe


TRAVERSE CITY -- The U.S. Supreme Court's decision to uncap limits on corporate political contributions won't derail an investigation into Meijer Inc.'s alleged criminal violations of Michigan campaign law.

The court on Thursday threw out a 63-year-old law designed to restrain the influence of big business and unions on elections, and ruled 5-4 that corporations may spend as freely as they like to support or oppose candidates.

The justices did uphold bans against direct contributions to candidates and requirements that anyone spending money on political ads must disclose contributors.

The decision eliminates a possible felony complaint against Meijer officials for using corporate funds to influence an Acme Township recall election, but leaves in place potential misdemeanor violations against Meijer officials for failing to report expenditures.

"We're going to see this through to the end, and whatever we produce as a result of our investigation will be available for public inspection," said Grand Traverse County Prosecutor Alan Schneider.

Meijer admitted in 2008 it spent more than $100,000 on lawyers and a public relations firm to use front groups to secretly influence a 2005 township referendum and a 2007 recall attempt.

The Grand Rapids-area retailer paid a $190,000 civil fine to the Secretary of State and apologized for its actions in an unsigned statement. It's never disclosed who in its corporate hierarchy sanctioned the illegal activity.

"It was the democratic process that they toyed with and they need to be held accountable," said Denny Rohn, president of Concerned Citizens of Acme Township, a group that filed suit against Acme in 2004 after the then-township board approved a Meijer-anchored development. "Whether they spend years in prison or weeks is not the issue for me, ... this community needs to know who authorized this and who is at the bottom of this."

Meijer's lead attorney, John Pirich, did not respond to a request for comment.

The court's decision will hamper Schneider's probe. It rules out the use of investigative subpoenas, a law enforcement tool used to compel witness testimony in felony investigations. Investigative subpoenas can't be used to probe a misdemeanor.

"It will inhibit our ability to talk to witnesses, but it will not prove an insurmountable obstacle," Schneider said.

The local investigation is on hold while the Michigan Supreme Court decides whether it will hear Meijer's appeal of a state Court of Appeals ruling that allowed county prosecutors, not just the secretary of state, to investigate campaign finance law violations. The U.S. Supreme Court decision won't impact that appeal, Schneider said.

It's also unlikely to have much impact on state elections, said Rich Robinson, executive director of the non-partisan Michigan Campaign Finance Network.

"It means about nothing at all for candidate campaigns in Michigan; that horse left the barn years ago," Robinson said.

The state's political parties and the Michigan Chamber of Commerce for years legally aggregated tens of millions of dollars to spend on state political campaigns.

Federal campaign laws were stricter than Michigan's statute, and critics argued they amounted to an unconstitutional restraint of free speech.

Advocates of strong campaign finance regulations predicted the court ruling would lead to a flood of corporate and union money in federal campaigns.

"It's going to be the Wild Wild West," said Ben Ginsberg, a Republican attorney who has represented several GOP presidential campaigns. "It means that the public debate is significantly changed with a lot more voices and it means that the loudest voices are going to be corporations and unions."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.