As the behind-the-scenes story of what really happened in the development battle between Acme Township, Meijer Inc., and The Village at Grand Traverse in the early 2000s continues to unravel, so does what little faith Michigan citizens have in the state's campaign finance laws.
Make that the enforcement of campaign finance laws.
In an April deposition Village at Grand Traverse managing partner Steve Smith claimed he had no idea that some of the checks he wrote to attorneys from seven law firms over a six-year period were to pay for what was later determined to be illegal campaign activity.
To hear Smith tell it, he didn't know why he was writing all those checks to all those attorneys.
"I never looked at a single bill from attorneys," he said. "I'd pay it, send it on to Meijer, and they'd pay half."
Smith also claimed he didn't realize he made legal payments tied to a 2005 big-box store moratorium vote.
Further, Smith said he didn't recall receiving a check from Meijer to reimburse the Village for campaign-related legal expenditures -- or if he ever cashed it.
To say that Smith's claims strain credibility is to state the obvious. To know that Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land bought those claims at face value and later gave Smith and The Village a total pass on campaign violations is to wonder why the rules are even on the books.
When Land's office learned in 2008 of The Village's involvement in the 2005 moratorium she excused Village officials because Meijer, their development partner, had assumed responsibility for campaign finance violations; Meijer paid a paltry $190,000 fine and criminal investigations were quashed.
To justify the decision, Ken Silfven, Land's spokesman, repeated Smith's untenable claims that he knew nothing.
"There was no expectation for the Village of Grand Traverse to report. It didn't know it was making the election payments," he said. "Meijer paid for (the attorneys) and took full responsibility."
Sorry, but the law doesn't allow someone else to take "full responsibility" for someone else's possible violations of the law. To accept Smith's claims and then to put the whole thing off on Meijer is an insult to Michigan voters.
Smith claimed the expense wasn't a campaign contribution.
"We, VGT, have absolutely no violation of election laws," Smith said in sworn testimony.
That's not how other people saw it.
"Wow, this just sounds like an open license for some parties to reinvent history, and I don't know how you hold parties responsible in an environment like that," said Rich Robinson, director of the nonpartisan Michigan Campaign Finance Network.
At the very least it's another instance of someone with clout and money getting a pass -- one that ordinary citizens would never receive. And we may not yet know the end of it.