Traverse City Record-Eagle

April 1, 2013

Case against ex-Meijer lawyer puts face on Acme violations

Our View
Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — Someone finally may have to personally pay the piper for Meijer, Inc.’s abuse of Acme Township residents and government officials during the second half of the past decade.

Michigan’s Attorney Grievance Commission — the state Supreme Court wing charged with investigating and prosecuting alleged misconduct among state lawyers — this month leveled a formal complaint against a former Meijer hired gun who many believe masterminded the Grand Rapids-area retailer’s illegal corporate thuggery in Grand Traverse County.

Grievance commission officials allege Timothy Stoepker, a Grand Rapids-based lawyer with heavyweight firm Dickinson Wright, gave false statements during a 2007 deposition in Bill Boltres’ lawsuit against Meijer.

Boltres, Acme Township’s then-treasurer, stood strong against Meijer’s bullying and threats of legal action and effectively became Acme’s version of David in a battle against Goliath.

Boltres’ fight toppled the illegal house of cards and prompted (forced?) the state to slap Meijer with a six-figure fine for violations of state campaign finance law. The lawsuit opened the door for Boltres and other Acme government officials and citizens to earn millions in lawsuit settlements from the retailer.

Stoepker was Meijer’s legal point man during its effort to site a sprawling development complex in Acme. Two highly contentious elections occurred in the township during Stoepker’s time at the controls: a 2005 referendum on “big box” stores and a recall against the township board in 2007. Evidence from lawsuits and other investigations ultimately proved Meijer illegally funded those campaigns when it paid a company that created bogus citizens groups to push the retailer’s anti-zoning agenda. Stoepker was neck deep in those efforts, according to grievance commission documents. In 2006 as Meijer’s representative, he signed a contact with Seyferth Spaulding Tennyson Inc., a Grand Rapids public relations firm, and Meijer secretly paid that firm to gin-up a recall of Acme’s elected officials.

The grievance commission said Stoepker worked as lead attorney for Meijer when the company violated campaign finance laws over the stretch of both elections.

In October 2007, Boltres’ lawyer, Grant Parsons, of Traverse City, questioned Stoepker during a deposition in Boltres’ lawsuit. Grievance commission documents show Parsons asked the following questions:

“Can you tell me how big a role Meijer took in the election, referendum or moratorium election up there?”

Stoepker replied, “I have no knowledge of that at all.”

Parsons continued, “Do you know what contributions Meijer Corporation made to local political supporters of Meijer in the Acme area?”

“I have no knowledge,” Stoepker said.

In its complaint, the grievance commission said “(Stoepker’s) answers to these questions posed to him at his deposition were intentionally and knowingly false and misleading given Stoepker’s representation of Meijer and its agents regarding the referendum and recall elections.”

The grievance commission cited seven instances in which Stoepker allegedly committed professional misconduct, including two that fairly sum up allegations against Stoepker and how he and the retailer conducted business in that community in the mid- to late-2000s: “(Stoepker) (e)ngaged in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation where such conduct reflects adversely on the lawyer’s honesty, trustworthiness, or fitness as a lawyer ... (and) (e)ngaged in conduct that violates the criminal law, being the then-applicable Michigan Campaign Finance Act.”

Stoepker is scheduled to appear for a hearing next month, an opportunity for him to dispute the grievance commission’s findings. If the grievance commission’s findings stick, he’s subject to punishment that could range from a reprimand to suspension or loss of his law license.

Meijer’s decisions over the years to settle its various lawsuits and pay state fines and penalties helped its corporate officers avoid public exposure for their roles in the disgraceful Acme episode. But the grievance commission’s probe — prompted by a complaint filed by Detroit-area lawyer Matthew Abel — finally puts a face on the abuses and holds someone personally accountable for reprehensible behavior perpetrated by people against people who lived in this community.

It’s high time.