Traverse City Record-Eagle

July 7, 2010

Court to hear appeal in Meijer case


TRAVERSE CITY — Michigan's Supreme Court will decide whether authority rests with a local prosecutor or the Secretary of State to probe state campaign finance law violations committed by Meijer Inc.

The high court this month granted Meijer's appeal of a lower court's November decision that said county prosecutors have the ability to investigate criminal violations of state campaign laws.

Justice Michael Cavanagh dissented; he said he agreed with the appeals court's finding that Grand Traverse County Prosecutor Alan Schneider could investigate Meijer and its agents for campaign law violations in Acme Township between 2005-07.

The Supreme Court could take months to decide the case and will at the very least extend a two-year-plus delay of Schneider's criminal probe. A high court reversal would dash any chance of determining who among company officials authorized Meijer's secret tampering in township elections.

"I'm surprised," Schneider said. "If somebody intentionally breaks the law, then you have to prosecute. It seems pretty simple to me. Are they going to say they are reading something into the statute?"

Meijer and its supporters welcomed the decision. Some of the most politically influential, top-spending organizations in Lansing — from the Michigan Education Association and Michigan Teamsters to the Michigan Chamber of Commerce — backed Meijer's efforts to fend off Schneider's probe.

"We're pleased with the decision; we look forward to completing our briefs and look forward to arguing it before the court," said Meijer's attorney, John Pirich, of Lansing.

Pirich declined to discuss any specifics of the case.

Schneider began his probe in January 2008, shortly after the Record-Eagle published stories and documents that showed Meijer, through its law firms, contracted with a public relations company to secretly orchestrate the attempted recall of Acme Township's board of trustees.

Meijer later admitted it violated state campaign laws in both 2005 and 2007. It agreed to pay $190,000 in a civil settlement with Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land.

Attorney General Mike Cox quickly ruled Land's agreement prevented any criminal investigation. But the appeals court last year disagreed and said a civil settlement has no influence over a potential criminal matter.

In the Supreme Court's order this month, Justice Stephen Markman questioned if the issue isn't moot in light of a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that overturned a ban on direct corporate funding of elections.

The federal court's ruling eliminated possible felony charges against Meijer officials, but Schneider said he intends to investigate whether they committed criminal misdemeanors.

"I already told (the Supreme Court) they should remand it back to the circuit court to dismiss the case," Schneider said. "I won't investigate any felony, but that would still leave me with the ability to investigate the misdemeanors."