TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) -- Michigan fined big-box retail chain Meijer Inc. more than $190,000 Tuesday for campaign law violations in its effort to build a big-box superstore in a northern Michigan suburb.
Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land said an investigation found Meijer violated state law last year by donating to an effort to recall seven elected Acme Township officials who objected to the chain's development plans, and by failing to report its activities.
The company also did not file required reports of its spending on a 2005 ballot initiative that overturned a moratorium on big-box store construction in Acme, a community near Traverse City about 140 miles north of Grand Rapids.
"Our campaign finance laws are about openness and disclosure and in this case Meijer tried to avoid both," Land said.
Land described it as the maximum civil penalty that could be imposed in the case and the largest fine ever levied by her department for violations of the Michigan Campaign Finance Act.
Meijer's behind-the-scenes involvement in Acme Township politics were first detailed last December in documents made public in a lawsuit against the company.
Meijer, a retail chain with more than 180 stores in Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and Kentucky, issued a statement accepting the state's decision.
"We know our actions in Acme Township have caused people to be disappointed in us," said Hank Meijer, the company's co-chairman. "We are committed to restoring the trust placed in us and serving our communities with the highest level of integrity."
Meijer was assessed a series of fines and penalties under two agreements reached with the secretary of state's office.
The first dealt with the company's expenditure of more than $46,000 in the township's August 2005 referendum that overturned a local moratorium on construction of big-box stores.
Corporations may legally spend money in elections to support or oppose a ballot question. But Meijer failed to register as a ballot question committee and did not report its spending, Land said.
For that violation, the company was fined the amount it spent, plus penalties and fees, for a total of $55,263.69.
The second agreement dealt with the 2007 campaign to recall seven elected Acme officials who objected to Meijer's development plans in the township. All seven survived the recall vote, although two have since resigned, citing stress from the Meijer battle.
Meijer spent more than $55,000 in the recall campaign, including payments to a legal firm and a public relations company, Land said. The expenditures would have been legal if made by Meijer's political action committee, but instead they were made directly by the company.
For those violations, the company was assessed fines and penalties totaling $134,875.12.
Meijer said it had "instituted processes, policy and structural changes to ensure the circumstances that occurred in Acme Township cannot be repeated."
"I am confident this was an aberration in an otherwise strongly community oriented company," said Mark Murray, company president.
Acme Township Supervisor Wayne Kladder, one of the officials targeted in the recall vote, said the secretary of state's ruling had vindicated his belief that Meijer was orchestrating the campaign.
"I'm not popping champagne bottles, but I'm glad my suspicions were proven," Kladder said, adding that he held no grudges and wanted township residents to mend fences. "Right now it's neighbor against neighbor."
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