TRAVERSE CITY — Motions filed by Meijer, Inc. to intervene in a misconduct hearing for its former attorney prompted questions about what information the retailer might want kept out of the public eye.
Meijer officials on Jan. 15 filed a motion to intervene in a disciplinary hearing for ex-Meijer attorney Timothy Stoepker that’s scheduled for Jan. 30 in Grand Rapids. Meijer attorneys filed the motion after the state Attorney Grievance Commission sought billing records from Stoepker’s law firm Dickinson Wright PLLC for work Stoepker performed for Meijer in 2005.
The grievance commission is investigating allegations that Stoepker lied during a lawsuit deposition when he denied knowledge of Meijer officials’ involvement in a 2005 election campaign in Acme Township.
Meijer’s motion states the billing records contain confidential, attorney-client communications that should not be released. As an alternative, the motion asked the hearing panel to review the documents under seal and close the hearing to the public if or when the records are discussed.
Meijer’s efforts to keep review of the documentation behind closed doors suggests the company doesn’t want the general public to fully know what went on behind the scenes during several contentious years last decade in Acme Township, a critic contended.
“Clearly, they are trying to hide something, based on their degree of panic over this grievance hearing,” said Denny Rohn, president of the citizens group Concerned Citizens of Acme Township. “Their panic only keeps raising flags for the rest of us who wonder what they might be hiding.”
Attorney billing records typically list the date and time work was done for a client and briefly describe the type of work, who was involved, and the topic. The records are fairly general, said Robert Edick, a state deputy grievance administrator who is prosecuting the case against Stoepker.
“I would be surprised if they would have anything in there that qualifies as a confidential communication,” Edick said.
The complaint against Stoepker stems from his representation of Meijer in the corporation’s pursuit of a store off M-72 in Acme Township. Meijer officials admitted they secretly and illegally spent more than $100,000 on lawyers and a public relations firm to fight a 2005 township referendum and also to support a 2007 effort to recall the township board because some board members opposed the Meijer development.
The state Attorney Grievance Commission alleged Stoepker, of Grand Rapids, falsely testified under oath during a lawsuit deposition when he denied any knowledge of Meijer officials’ involvement in the 2005 election. The allegations have been pending since 2009 while civil and criminal actions against Meijer were pursued.
If the commission finds Stoepker guilty of violations, he faces penalties that could include suspension of his law license.
Attorneys for both Stoepker and Meijer filed multiple motions and appeals over the last year, including some that reached the state Supreme Court. The high court already rejected one request filed by Meijer in May 2013, to intervene.
The three-attorney hearing panel issued an order this month requesting Stoepker provide the billing records under seal. Stoepker previously refused to turn over the billing records, citing objections by Meijer, Edick said.
Edick said he wants the records to rebut any testimony by Stoepker that he wasn’t aware of Meijer’s involvement in the 2005 township referendum.
Stoepker’s attorney, Donald Campbell, was unavailable to speak with the Record-Eagle. Meijer attorney John Pirich could not be reached for comment.
Traverse City attorney Mike Dettmer, who sued Meijer on behalf of some Acme Township officials, doubts Meijer would want to protect Stoepker, with whom they cut ties almost immediately after the illegal activity came to light in late 2007.
“It would only be speculation on my part, but if I was a litigant I would be assuming Meijer made some misrepresentation along the way that at most would be embarrassing to someone,” Dettmer said.
Edick said he doesn’t know why Meijer is trying to prevent release of the records to the public.
“It could just be a matter of principle” Edick said. “I’m sure they are not happy about this whole episode being revisited.”