Traverse City Record-Eagle

July 25, 2013

Meijer tried to quash ex-attorney's testimony

BY BRIAN McGILLIVARY
bmcgillivary@record-eagle.com

— TRAVERSE CITY — Meijer Inc. officials unsuccessfully tried to prevent their former attorney Timothy Stoepker from revealing any secrets that might remain about the retailer’s illegal intervention in two Acme Township elections.

Stoepker, of Grand Rapids, faces ethics charges from his time as Meijer’s lawyer that could cost him his law license. His attorneys indicated he may have to reveal client confidences in order to defend himself. That prompted current Meijer attorneys to ask the Michigan Attorney Discipline Board to allow the retailer to intervene and head off the potential release of confidential information.

Lawyers generally can’t reveal private client information, but state legal ethics rules allow an accused attorney to defend against allegations of criminal or ethical violations, said Robert Edick, deputy grievance administrator with the Michigan Attorney Grievance Commission.

“Mr. Stoepker was free at any point during the investigation to reveal that information at his discretion,” Edick said. “He does not need Meijer’s approval to reveal that, but apparently Meijer took a different view of that.”

“Their motion was unusual,” he said. “That’s pretty rare.”

Three Kent County attorneys who serve as the hearing panel for the Michigan Attorney Discipline Board rejected Meijer’s request, and the full discipline board this month rejected Meijer’s attempt to intervene in the Stoepker case.

Meijer attorney John Pirich said the retailer’s legal motion speaks for itself, and he declined to discuss Meijer’s next step.

The discipline board also rejected Stoepker’s request to dismiss charges against him for falsely testifying under oath about his alleged role in Meijer’s illegal campaign activities in Acme in 2005 and 2007. Stoepker has 21 days from July 19 to file his formal answer to the charges, at which point a hearing date will be set.

Stoepker could not be reached for comment.

Stoepker or Meijer could file an appeal with the Michigan Supreme Court over the discipline board’s ruling, but Edick said he doesn’t think there is a realistic chance the top court would enter the fray at this time.

The complaint against Stoepker stems from his representation of Meijer in the corporation’s pursuit of a store off M-72 in Acme Township. Details became public during a resulting lawsuit that prompted Meijer officials to admit they secretly 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.

Stoepker represented Meijer during those efforts. He also was involved in filing lawsuits against township officials, one of whom in turn sued Meijer. The latter suit prompted a 2007 civil deposition of Stoepker in which Stoepker twice stated under oath he had “no knowledge” of Meijer’s work to impact local elections.

But public documents showed Stoepker contracted with a public relations firm to help recall Acme leaders. Stoepker also represented Meijer on the referendum and recall election.

Meijer acknowledged in 2008 that its officials violated state campaign finance law and paid more than $190,000 in fines and costs.

Edick said there has been no indication of what information Stoepker might choose to reveal about Meijer, and he’s puzzled about such information might benefit Stoepker.

“I don’t know what he could reveal that would excuse giving misleading testimony at a deposition,” Edick said. “I think he’ll file his answer and it won’t reveal any secrets or confidences. But who knows.”