Fieger vs. Meijer

May 21, 2008 at 12:00 am

Currently, your federal government, at great expense, is prosecuting one Geoffrey Nels Fieger, the state's most flamboyant and flamboyantly successful attorney. The feds say he violated campaign finance laws. Here's what he is being charged with: reimbursing employees and other people who gave money to John Edwards' brief and monumentally unsuccessful presidential campaign.

Not, by the way, the 2008 campaign — this was from Edwards' first brief and unsuccessful campaign four years ago. (Do we see a pattern here?) Here's what the feds say happened: Fieger told people they ought to give the maximum allowed to the Edwards campaign, which was then $2,000.

Then, he allegedly reimbursed them, slipping them bonuses, etc. In all, he allegedly submitted $127,000 in what the government says are illegal campaign contributions.

Now he's being charged with conspiracy, obstruction of justice, making illegal campaign contributions in another's name, and similar bad things. His law partner, Ven Johnson, has been charged with violating campaign finance laws as well.

So did they do it? And did Geoffrey Fieger mean to break the law? Truthfully, I have no idea. Incidentally, I have known Fieger for many years, and have been accused of being too favorable toward him. (He hasn't always agreed; he once called me the worst journalist in the state on a radio program, after his campaign for governor.)

I saw him argue all of the Kevorkian cases. But I haven't seen him much since, haven't attended a moment of this trial, and am writing this based solely on what I have read in the public media.

Based on those accounts, it seems likely that he did reimburse some of these people. However, his lawyer, Gerry Spence, says that there is a loophole in the law, and that the reimbursement was legal, because the money was paid, not by the law firm, but by Fieger out of his own pocket.

What is clear is that the feds are hot to get Geoffrey. For years he has been scathingly outspoken in his denunciations of Republicans in general and the Bush administration in particular, and you don't have to be on the Fieger payroll to conclude that this case smells heavily of selective prosecution. The feds staged a major raid on Fieger's offices, carting off reams of documents, in November 2005. Then they filed no charges for something like two years. So much for speedy justice under the law.

On the other hand, the firm Fieger, Fieger, Kinney, Johnson and Giroux handles medical malpractice cases. Doesn't it seem reasonable that many of the lawyers there would have supported the presidential candidacy of a medical malpractice lawyer, which Edwards was?

Fieger spent time with Edwards in 2003, liked and admired him, and probably wanted to impress him by delivering a nice pot of money to his campaign. But by the time the money got to the senator, the race was likely finished.

Clearly, the Fieger money had no impact. Edwards even badly lost the Michigan Democratic caucuses that February. By the way, $127,000 is chicken feed in politics today.

But should he still be punished? You could legitimately argue that a law is a law. The punishment the feds are seeking here is not a slap on the wrist. Some of these charges are major felonies. That means, if the federal prosecutors win their case, Geoffrey Fieger could lose his law license, have to pay a $250,000 fine, and could get up to 10 years on the obstruction of justice count alone.

That would destroy him — and his firm.

Yet our campaign finance system is utterly corrupt. Here's proof: Fieger could have spent 100 times that amount boosting the Edwards campaign — and gotten away with it. All he would have to do is form a so-called "527" group, and he could have poured infinite money into it.

See, so-called 527 groups aren't subject to regulation and spending limits by the Federal Election Commission. (The number comes from the particular section of the tax code that pertains here.) That's because they are supposed to be "issue-oriented" groups, and not designed to promote or damage a particular campaign.

That's the biggest laugh in history. Guess what was the most famous and influential 527 group in the 2004 campaign? The horrendously misnamed Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, which spent $22.4 million to tell lies about John Kerry and ruin his reputation. True, long after the election was over and the damage done, the FEC fined the Swift Boat group $299,000.

They found the Swifties did exactly what Fieger is accused of doing, but on a much larger scale — taking, for example, $12.5 million in illegal personal contributions in excess of the $2,000 limit.

But did the Department of Justice go after the person or persons who incorporated this committee, who orchestrated the campaign of lies that really did affect the election result?

Not at all. Didn't even try to. You can believe that Geoffrey Fieger is an outrageous leftist jerk. But over the Supreme Court building in Washington it says: Equal Justice Under Law.

Trying to send him to prison while not even going after the Swift Boat guys is anything but fair.

And now consider this: A few years ago, the giant Meijer chain of stores wanted to build a new "superstore" in Acme Township, not far from Traverse City. But the people who live there had a lot of nerve: They said no to the giant retailer.

How dare the peasants have minds of their own! So Meijer secretly and illegally spent money to try to influence a 2005 vote to overturn a ban on building "big-box" stores in the township. Then they spent more money trying to recall the township commissioners opposed to the new store.

The recall failed, and they got caught. "Our campaign finance laws are about openness and disclosure and in this case Meijer tried to avoid both," said Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land. But did she ask the attorney general to prosecute them?

Not at all. Instead, she slapped their wrist with a $139,138 fine, and a lot of tough talk that concealed that she wasn't really serious about going after Meijer, whose headquarters is near where she lives.

Nor did Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox move to prosecute them. (He was all gung ho to prosecute Fieger a few years ago for making anonymous commercials attacking a Michigan Supreme Court judge.)

The attorney general's spokesman said this was all the secretary of state's fault; he said she didn't consult with him, and her settlement "limited Cox's options." The secretary of state's spokesman said she was legally obligated to seek an informal agreement.

Some of this is hard to sort out, though it's worth nothing that, both Republicans, Cox and Land may run against each other for the nomination for governor in two years. Clearly, neither wants to tick off Meijer.

So Meijer — one of the nation's largest privately held, family owned corporations — can grin, raise the price of that popcorn popper a few cents, and soon recover its entire fine. And just remember, according to our state's official records, justice was served.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Contact him at [email protected]