TRAVERSE CITY — A state appeals court ruled Grand Traverse County's prosecutor may proceed with a probe of Meijer, Inc. for possible criminal violations of Michigan's campaign finance law stemming from a 2007 Acme Township recall election.
Appeals judges in a ruling released late Friday overturned a 2008 decision by 13th Circuit Judge Philip Rodgers that barred county Prosecutor Alan Schneider from pursuing crimes Meijer allegedly committed when it secretly financed a 2007 recall campaign against Acme Township's board.
Rodgers determined that Michigan's secretary of state had the lone jurisdiction to investigate and resolve campaign finance violations by Meijer and its attorneys.
But appeals Judges Elizabeth L. Gleicher, Kathleen Jansen and Karen M. Fort Hood said Meijer's eventual deal with Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land covered only civil penalties and that Schneider has the right to probe possible criminal acts.
"Because the secretary of state possesses no legal authority to address criminal liability in a conciliation agreement, we reject that this statutory language bars the prosecutor from investigating felony charges," their ruling stated.
Meijer attorney John Pirich called the opinion "erroneous," and said Meijer will considering appealing to the Michigan Supreme Court or asking the appeals court to reconsider.
"We'll conduct our own analysis, then decide what remedies we should pursue," Pirich said Saturday. Meijer has 42 days to determine its next course.
Schneider said he believes the ruling will stand up to further appeal.
"We will go back to Circuit Court and take up where we left off," he said.
Meijer officials in 2008 acknowledged violating state campaign finance laws in Acme in 2005 and 2007. Land assessed Grand Rapids-based Meijer $190,000 in fines and costs in a conciliation agreement that Attorney General Mike Cox subsequently said precluded a criminal investigation.
Schneider appealed Rodgers' ruling and said he wanted to obtain documents and testimony from Meijer officials and attorneys who worked for the retailer during the recall campaign.
Meijer's battle with Acme officials dates to 2004, when newly elected township board members and a local citizens group opposed a sprawling development dubbed the Village of Grand Traverse that was to be anchored by a Meijer store.
The Village project spawned lawsuits that eventually led to suits against Meijer and the Village by Acme's then-Treasurer Bill Boltres. Meijer paid Boltres an undisclosed sum to settle their suit in late 2007, and the Village this year also paid to settle with Boltres.
Also this year, Meijer paid five Acme township officials $1.5 million to settle lawsuits, and paid Concerned Citizens of Acme Township $75,000 for their promise to not sue the retailer.