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2007-12-23
Acme, MI. Meijerís Settles Lawsuit In Smear Campaign Against Local Official

The Meijer's retail chain today has 180 stores and more than 60,000 employees in five states. The company has been around since 1934 -- but the following story will make all 60,000 of its employees ashamed and embarassed. On October 28, 2007, Sprawl-Busters reported that a public official who had the guts to stand up to the retail chain store, was suing the company in Circuit Court in the county of Grand Traverse Michigan. William Boltres, the plaintiff, charged that because he voted against a Meijer's big box project as a public official in Acme township, Michigan, the retailer retaliated against him. In January of 2005, Meijer's filed suit against Boltres, claiming that Boltres was a member of a citizens' group Concerned Citizens of Acme Township (CCAT). Boltres says he never was a member of the citizens' group, and that Meijer's easily could have discovered that, but made no reasonable inquiry to learn the truth. The lawsuit asserts that Meijer's lawsuit against Boltres was pursued with "malice and/or a motive to retaliation against Boltres solely because Boltres did not vote in favor of Meijer's big box store plan." After the city voted down Meijer's plan, the retailer sued Boltres, alleging he had a conflict of interest, that his vote was biased and unfair, and that he owed Meijer monetary damages in excess of $25,000. Boltres then filed his own lawsuit against Meijer's, saying their legal action against him was frivolous, because the retailer should have known that Boltres did not belong to the group. Boltres'complaint said that Meijer's "is known in the State of Michigan as a company that will resort to bullying tactics and retaliation against citizens who oppose Meijer big box development." Boltres' lawyer said Meijer's "damaged Bill Boltres' peace of mind and health by subjecting him to a frivolous lawsuit and a frivolous claim for significant monetary damages." When the Meijer's lawsuit was dismissed in favor of Boltres, the court found the retailer lacked probable cause. Boltres charges that Meijer's used its lawsuit "for the ulterior motive of causing vexation, trouble, embarrassment, damage to plaintiff's personal reputation, damage to plaintiff's community reputation, and as retaliation for plaintiff Bill Boltres' good faith effort to participate in town government." Boltres says that Meijer's used its lawsuit to try to prevent him for "fairly and objectively" reviewing Meijer's plans." The Meijer's lawsuit sought township officials' private records, and attempted to seize their personal computers. When the township approved Meijer's plans with a series of conditions the company did not like, Meijer's filed seven court actions against township officials, and a recall effort was launched to get rid of the township board members who had approved the permit conditions. Meijer's sued the township's supervisor, clerk, four Trustees, and township treasurer Bill Boltres. But in a ruling that upheld the township's conditions, 13th Circuit Court Judge Philip Rodgers called those requirements reasonable for the location. "Construction would perhaps go more smoothly if Meijer would stop trying to pound a square peg into a round hole," Rodgers said. Before the recall vote, former Michigan Governor William Milliken, a Grand Traverse County resident, came out against the recall. "Ordinarily, I make a point of not becoming involved in local political issues,' the former Governor wrote, "but I feel strongly that the outcome of this election will have important implications not only for Acme Township but for the entire region." Boltres charged in his suit that Meijer's was behind the recall effort. One of the recall petition circulators admitted in a court deposition that he had attended two meetings "organized by Meijer" where the recall petition effort was organized. Today, the Traverse City Record-Eagle announced that Meijer's had settled the lawsuit filed by Boltres. The terms of the settlement were not released, but sources in Travers City told Sprawl-Busters that Meijer's agreed to pay Boltres at least 1 million to settle his lawsuit. In November, a mediation panel recommended Meijer's pay $3 million. Before this settlement, Meijer's worked aggressively to try to keep its backing of the recall campaign a secret. But Boltres' attorney, Grant Parsons, revealed billing records that showed a public relations firm had billed Meijer invoices for more than $30,000 to work on the recall of the Acme Township Board. These billings should have been publicly disclosed under Michigan campaign finance law. The so-called Acme Recall Committee never reported the contributions. Meijer hired a law firm, which then hired the PR firm, to oversee the recall effort, including writing the recall petition language, setting up recall websites, writing letters to the editor that local Acme residents signed. The PR firm listed Meijer's as its client, and said Meijer's directed the local opposition groups efforts. A member of Concerned Citizens of Acme Township, which opposed the recall, told the newspaper, "It's pretty disappointing. The democratic process in a little township has been undermined by a corporation's millions. I guess the sunny side of it is that it hasn't been very successful." The newspaper quoted another local resident as saying, "It is almost like there are two separate personas -- the benevolent, neighbor-friendly company they like to appear to be, and their cutthroat alter ego which will do whatever it takes to bully their one-size-fits-all stores into communities."

What you can do: Meijer's lawsuit against the public officials is known as "Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation (SLAPP). It stated that some of the new officials "cannot participate in administrative proceedings for which there is a potential for bias." It claimed the township supervisor, trustees and planning commissioners had an illegal conflict of interest simply by being associated with the citizen's group, CCAT. SLAPP suits are used by developers to scare officials into backing down and issuing permits to build developments the local community doesn't want. The goal in these suits is not to recoup money damages in a court of law. The goal is to scare small town officials, afraid of losing their homes, cars or lifelong savings, into caving in before these cases get to court. Some states have laws which force developers to show up-front the evidence in the lawsuit, and allows citizens being attacked with a SLAPP suit to resolve the matter quickly. In this case, Meijer's attempts to run roughshod over a local official backfired. Although the settlement between the Boltres and Meijer's was confidential, a joint statement issued to the media said, "Neither Mr. Boltres nor Meijer will provide public comment regarding the lawsuit or the settlement. Both parties are pleased to put the lawsuit behind them and move forward" In the statement, Meijer's senior officials claim that before December, they had no idea that their company had written checks to the local citizen's group. "New information indicates otherwise." Meijer's said. "We apologize for this error." Court documents show that Meijer's director of real estate and vice president of corporate communication were involved in the local recall effort. The Record-Eagle, in a series of published reports, charged Meijer's "secretly funded a plan to orchestrate" the recall election in February of 2007. "Meijer's public relations firm crafted recall language, devised election strategy, wrote campaign literature, and used local residents as figureheads in the recall. "It gives me a chill, how much money they can spend to ruin other people," Acme Clerk Dorothy Dunville, a target of the February recall, told the newspaper. Meijer filed a motion seeking to move the trial from the Record-Eagle's coverage area. Two days after Meijer learned the newspaper had the billing documents, the retailer's lawyers sought an order from the court to gag Attorney Parsons, and prevent the release of additional documents. Grand Traverse County Circuit Court Judge Philip Rodgers denied both motions, and gave Meijer until Dec. 28 to turn over financial records that would prove who paid the public relations firm. Acme township's lawyer said that "(Parsons) had Meijer over a barrel. I don't know what the settlement was, but if (Parsons) settled it was for a lot of money." Meijer never reported its contributions to the recall effort, despite the fact that Michigan law requires reporting of all campaign contributions, and bars corporations such as Meijer from contributing to political campaigns. "I didn't want all this," Boltres told the newspaper, "but they just kept hammering me and at some point you have to say enough." Now it is Meijer's who has said, "enough!"












 
 
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