Traverse City Record-Eagle

Meijer-Acme Township Dispute

July 11, 2010

Prosecutor faces big guns in Meijer case

TRAVERSE CITY — If it's true a little guy still can make a difference, Grand Traverse County Prosecutor Alan Schneider has a chance to be a real difference-maker.

Schneider finds himself firmly cast in the little guy's role in a case pending before Michigan's Supreme Court. He wants the court to uphold a lower court's November ruling that allowed him to investigate officials from Meijer Inc. for possible criminal violations of state campaign finance laws in Acme Township between 2005-07.

But his opponents are formidable and include deep-pocketed special interest groups. Retail giant Meijer, for one, is a heavyweight in Michigan's political arena, its influence earned through funding of politicians and public causes.

Schneider also must contend with the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, Michigan Teamsters and Michigan Education Association, groups whose political action committees spent millions over the past decade to support candidates and tilt the state political scale to their causes.

They're backing Meijer's efforts to fend off Schneider in the looming Supreme Court tussle.

"Everyone in the political establishment of both parties is against (Schneider)," said Rich Robinson, executive director of the non-partisan Michigan Campaign Finance Network.

Meijer and its backers want the Supreme Court to uphold the status quo, in which the secretary of state, who possesses no authority to conduct a criminal probe, hands out discipline for campaign finance violations. Deals — so-called "conciliation agreements" — are struck with offenders and penalties are limited to civil infractions and fines.

A Schneider victory could force changes to the campaign finance game. Observers like Robinson believe the threat of criminal prosecution — a state appellate court panel in November agreed with Schneider's position — could curtail illegal behavior.

"For the interest groups, it makes cheating a more risky proposition, because it's always been the case they can say mistakes were made and then reach a conciliation agreement," Robinson said. "Now it gives them less leeway with the law, and they will have to be straighter with the way they interact with the campaign finance act."

The Supreme Court this month agreed to hear the case. Oral arguments have yet to be scheduled, and it could be months before a decision is rendered.

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