Traverse City Record-Eagle

Meijer-Acme Township Dispute

November 14, 2010

Court ruling in Meijer case may have to wait

TRAVERSE CITY — The state's highest court may wait until at least January to make a landmark decision on state campaign finance law, a case prompted by Meijer Inc.'s illegal campaign acts in Acme Township.

And if the Michigan Supreme Court indeed holds off on such a decision until 2011, the ruling will include votes by justices elected this month and supported for office by millions of dollars in untraceable campaign cash.

The Michigan Republican Party and the Law Enforcement Alliance of America, a nonprofit group based in Virginia, funneled $4.5 million from untraceable donors into television advertisements for Republican nominees Mary Beth Kelly and Justice Robert Young, according to the nonpartisan Michigan Campaign Finance Network.

Kelly and Young defeated two Democratic nominees who received $2.6 million worth of untraceable funds for campaign advertising.

"Secrecy is an incubator for corruption," said Rich Robinson, Michigan Campaign Finance Network's executive director, and whose organization collects and analyzes advertising information from television stations.

"If we don't know who is financing a candidate's campaign, how can citizens evaluate whether an officeholder is serving the public interest, or the interests of his secret financial backers," Robinson said.

Robinson said his group has documented more than $20 million worth of anonymously financed campaign television advertising in Michigan Supreme Court campaigns since 2000.

Meijer wants the supreme court to overturn an appellate court's 2009 ruling that allowed Grand Traverse County Prosecutor Alan Schneider to investigate possible criminal violations of campaign finance law in Acme Township between 2005-07.

The court's docket lists the Meijer case as scheduled for oral arguments in December, but that could change, because voters this month ousted Democratic incumbent Alton Davis in favor of Republican nominee Mary Beth Kelly.

Cases argued in December won't be decided until 2011. Davis would be gone by then and Kelly would not be able to participate in a Meijer decision.

Schneider said the seven-member court is debating if it should cancel its December docket and wait for Kelly to join the bench.

Meijer attorney John Pirich did not respond to a reporter's request for comment on the court case and judicial race spending, nor did Michigan Republican Party officials.

Traverse City attorney Mike Dettmer recently submitted a brief to the supreme court on behalf of Concerned Citizens of Acme Township, a group that supports Schneider's would-be criminal probe of Meijer.

He called the secretly sourced millions of dollars pumped into judicial campaigns "an outrage."

"Each of us, regardless of our political beliefs, should be outraged we do not know where this money comes from," Dettmer said.

In a footnote to his brief, Dettmer wrote that Dickinson Wright PLLC, Meijer's former law firm and a target of Schneider's investigation, gave more than $17,000 to Young's campaign.

"We don't have standing to raise any issues like disqualification ... and it's not for me to say, but I think Young should ask himself the question," Dettmer said.

Denny Rohn, Concerned Citizens of Acme Township's president, said her group decided to support Schneider's case because members wanted justices to understand the negative effect campaign law violations can have on a community.

Meijer acknowledged in 2008 it violated state law when it secretly spent more than $100,000 on lawyers and a public relations firm to create front groups to fight a 2005 Acme Township referendum and support a 2007 effort to recall the township board.

Meijer targeted township officials during a zoning dispute over a development that included a Meijer store.

Meijer then struck a deal with Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land, paid $190,000 in a civil fine and costs, and apologized in an unsigned statement. Grand Rapids-based Meijer never disclosed who in its corporate hierarchy sanctioned the illegal activity.

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. Agreements are struck with offenders and penalties are limited to civil infractions and fines.

The appeals court ruling that OK'd Schneider's criminal probe also struck down the traditional bar to criminal prosecution for offenders who agree to deals with the secretary of state.

If the appellate ruling stands, Meijer attorney contend it would "completely unravel" the state legislature's effort to create an effective enforcement process that promotes compliance and full public disclosure.

Meijer maintains the process works because it "self-reported" its violations about two months after they were publicly disclosed by the Record-Eagle.

And that disclosure came more than three years after it mounted its initial, illegal campaign. Meijer attorneys said if Schneider is allowed to prosecute, it effectively would eliminate a process used to resolve hundreds of often minor campaign finance violations.

But the conciliation process is for inadvertent errors, Schneider said. To escalate to the level of a criminal violation, a prosecutor must show someone "knowingly" violated the act, "a pretty high bar" to meet, he said.

Dettmer said the influx of corporate and secret money into elections makes this a "hugely important" decision for the state.

"I think now more than ever we need our county prosecutors out there protecting, especially in our local elections like this," he said.

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