Acme Township Treasurer William Boltres has gotten relief in a case of dueling lawsuits with Grand Rapids-based Meijer, Inc. Meijer had sued Boltres and three other Acme Township Board members in May 2006, alleging conflicts of interest in their decision on a land-use permit for a proposed Meijer store. In April 2007, Boltres sued Meijer for harassment.
The terms of the settlement between Meijer and Boltres are private. However, a much larger public issue remains unresolved. Records acquired by the Traverse City Record-Eagle reveal that Meijer, Inc. secretly provided substantial financial backing for a failed recall election against Boltres and the other Acme Township Board members. Acting in collaboration with some of the highest priced legal counsel in Michigan, Meijer, Inc. engaged in an apparent criminal conspiracy to attempt to get rid of the elected government of Acme Township. There weren’t any camouflage-wearing colonels toting AK-47s, but this was an attempted coup d’etat, American style.
The Record-Eagle reports that a Grand Rapids public relations firm billed Meijer, Inc. for recall activity ranging from drafting of petition language to web site development to ghost-written letters to the editor. Section 54 of the Michigan Campaign Finance Act states explicitly that it is illegal to use corporate money for state election expenditures, and Appendix M of the law makes clear that the ban on corporate money applies to recall elections as well. It is a felony to use corporate money in an election knowingly. Given that Meijer was responsive to multiple invoices, it is absolutely implausible that they did what they did unknowingly. While Meijer issued an unsigned statement on Saturday, December 22nd, which stated that, “…prior to this month, senior company officials believed that no financial contributions had been made to a local taxpayers [recall] group,” records reveal that its vice president for corporate communications and director of real estate were actively engaged in the campaign.
Given the seriousness of this sprawling web of campaign finance violations, it is up to Secretary of State Terri Land to refer this case for criminal investigation. While the law says that the secretary of state shall pursue informal resolution of ordinary campaign finance violations, she has discretion, which she has exercised against George Cushingberry and Geoffrey Fieger, to name two, to refer apparent gross violations to the state attorney general. This is no time to accept some soft-shoe shuffle that “mistakes were made.” It is up to Land to take a stand for the rule of law.
A further complication in this case is that earlier this year Meijer’s political action committee made a $5,000 contribution to Attorney General Mike Cox’s leadership PAC. Before Cox can accept an investigation of this importance, he must address that contribution and whether he can conduct an investigation solely in the public’s interest. The citizens of Acme Township and, indeed, the whole state of Michigan deserve to know the whole story of what happened in Acme Township, and they must see that justice is served.
This is a tragedy for a family that has built a regional retailing empire and been a generous benefactor to its community. For its part, the corporation should hold its employees at the highest level accountable and permanently swear off this kind of skulking Jack Abramoff-inspired politics. People are willing to forgive, but only when a perpetrator owns up to the full extent of his transgressions.
This case is no small matter. This was a direct assault on democracy by a powerful corporation. We wouldn't be sanguine about it if Meijer, Inc. had attemped to take over the Legislature. It is no less an offense simply because they tried to take over a smaller unit of government. The only good that can come from this case is deterrence against similar conduct in the future. If consequences are not serious, deterrence won't be serious. The public now depends on Secretary of State Terri Land and Attorney General Mike Cox to discharge their duties with utmost vigor and integrity in this case. Otherwise, our government of the people, by the people and for the people will lose more ground to the power of the corporation, by the corporation and for the corporation.