TRAVERSE CITY -- Grand Traverse County Prosecutor Alan Schneider will try to convince three state judges he should be able to enforce state campaign finance law, rules that nine federal judges ultimately may gut.
Schneider wants to pursue criminal charges against individuals involved in secret manipulations of two Acme Township elections by Meijer Inc. Thirteenth Circuit Court Judge Philip Rodgers last year ruled Michigan's campaign finance law limits enforcement to the secretary of state and attorney general.
Schneider appealed the decision, and the state Court of Appeals recently scheduled oral arguments for Sept. 2.
A week later, on Sept. 9, the U.S. Supreme Court will take another look at Michigan's ban on corporate funding of elections. In Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission, three justices instructed the parties to also argue if the court should overrule its 1990 decision of Austin v. Michigan State Chamber of Commerce.
That decision ruled states have a compelling interest in preventing corporations from deploying "immense aggregations of wealth to influence unfairly the outcomes of elections."
Meijer is shielded from criminal prosecution by a consent agreement with Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land in which the retailer admitted to violations and paid $190,000 in costs and fines.
Schneider wants to pursue the corporate decision-makers and others involved in the 2005 and 2007 election manipulations. The use of corporate funds in the Acme elections is a significant area he wants to pursue in a criminal investigation.
"The potential is there (the) section of the act would not be enforceable because it infringes on a (corporation's) constitutional rights," Schneider said. "It's significant to me ... but there are still other things that came to light in my investigation we want to look at."
Schneider declined to elaborate, except to note there are 27 other criminal provisions in the state campaign finance act.
Meijer attorney James Brady said he was unaware the Supreme Court was reviewing Austin and doesn't know what implications, if any, it may have for Meijer.
Rich Robinson, executive director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, a nonpartisan Lansing watchdog group, said not much will change in political spending even if the Supreme Court, as many expect, strikes the ban on direct corporate and union contributions.
"That horse has pretty much left the barn 10 years ago," Robinson said. "They pretty much already have an open field to participate."
Corporations and unions can either create political action committees to participate openly in elections or use nonprofits and the political parties to make untraceable donations, Robinson said.
"Since 2000, there's been $40 million worth of issue-advertising spent on television alone ... without any reporting requirements of where the money came from," Robinson said. "I'm not sure how much more corporate and union money is left to come into elections."