Controversy's Effects May Linger
GRAND RAPIDS — Last week’s record assessment against Meijer Inc. for campaign finance law violations is unlikely to be the last reverberation from the privately held retail company’s missteps in trying to build a store in northern Michigan.
The state Attorney General’s office said it would not pursue a criminal probe, but investigations into possible criminal violations by individuals may continue in Grand Traverse County. A state Senate committee is expected to review proposed campaign finance legislation, and a public relations firm may face an ethics review by a professional organization.
The Secretary of State last week issued fines and penalties of $190,138 to Walker-based Meijer for skirting the campaign finance law in attempts to influence a 2005 zoning referendum and a 2007 recall election in Grand Traverse County’s Acme Township, where the company wanted to build a store. Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land said it was the largest amount the state has ever assessed for campaign finance violations.
The conciliation agreement included fines of $1,000 each for 11 payments to public relations firm Seyferth Spaulding Tennyson Inc. and nine payments to law firm Dickinson Wright. Neither firm is currently working for Meijer, company spokesman Frank Guglielmi said. Meijer took full responsibility for the campaign finance law violations and said it would institute closer control of companies it hires.
Rusty Hills, spokesman for Attorney General Mike Cox, said state law prevents further action regarding the company for campaign finance violations. “The Grand Traverse County prosecutor has publicly stated that he and the Michigan State Police have been investigating possible perjury and obstruction of justice charges related to the recall election,” Hills added. “They are still free to pursue this investigation because these potential charges are not covered by the Campaign Finance Act.”
Grand Traverse County Prosecutor Alan Schneider did not respond to a request for comment last week. Schneider is appealing a Circuit Court decision that halted his criminal investigation’s effort to recover information from Meijer.
Rich Robinson, executive director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, said that although the assessment against Meijer seems large, it does little to impact the company.
“The only value to the enforcement exercise is if it is a deterrent to this kind of conduct going forward,” Robinson said. “Unless there is a criminal investigation, I think the opportunity to draw a line for the sake of deterrence has been missed.”
T. Michael Jackson, a public relations practitioner in Traverse City, said he has requested that the national ethics committee of the Public Relations Society of America review SST’s participation in election activities. He said his request was tabled until some action occurred in the case. A PRSA spokesman said he would look into the question.
Jackson, who has served on PRSA state and national ethics committees, said the organization’s code of ethics calls for disclosure of information. “In building trust with the public, a public relations firm should reveal all information needed for responsible decision-making, to be honest and accurate in all communications,” Jackson said. “One could question whether they were.”
West Michigan PRSA President Tim Pietryga said the local organization has no resources or plans to review the firm’s actions.
Grand Valley State University Professor Tim Penning, who teaches in the public relations program, said a PRSA ethics review would be meant to be informative and would carry no sanctions.
“We still don’t know: Was there a front group, and if there was a group that existed, did the public relations people do things in a less-than-upfront way?” he added. “In Seyferth’s interest, it would be good to have the opportunity to clarify if they crossed the line or not.”
The state Senate Campaign and Election Oversight Committee is considering a bill, introduced earlier this month, that would require the secretary of state to post campaign finance complaints and any responses on the Internet. It also would require the secretary to review the complaint within 60 days. State Sen. Mark Jansen, R-Gaines Township, is a committee member.
Bob LaBrant, senior vice president and legal counsel for the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, said it’s too easy to let campaign finance law complaints linger in bureaucratic review.
“I think that the process needs to be speeded up and some firm timelines placed on the department of state to determine whether there’s reason to believe a probable violation of the act has occurred,” LaBrant said. “Once they’ve made the determination, they should have a relatively short period of time for conciliation. If someone has violated the campaign finance law, there ought to be a much swifter process than what we go through here and have this go into month after month after month.”
LaBrant said the Acme Township maelstrom shows that top management needs to know whenever a firm gets involved in the political arena, and needs expert advice.
“Before you embark upon some course of action, you (should) thoroughly understand what the law permits you to do and what the law doesn’t permit you to do,” he said.