In the latest twist of the Wal-Mart distribution center's legal saga, Merced City Attorney Greg Diaz said that if Merced's bid to approve the big project fails, there would be an investigation into who might be paying the Wal-Mart opponents' attorneys fees.
As the Sun-Star reported last June, Wal-Mart's lawyer, Arthur Friedman, had raised the possibility that the lawyer representing one of the project's main opponents, Merced Alliance for Quality Growth (MARG), might be being paid by competitors of the giant retailer, rather than by local residents.
It remains to be seen, Diaz said last week, whether some of the attorneys fees "were undertaken for a more public or private purpose to the extent that there is an outside group of competitors." He hasn't yet started to probe the issue of attorneys fees, but if the distribution center issue is decided unfavorably for the city, there'd be reason to look at who's paying those fees.
But if the city wins, "it's not really an issue," he said.
Last week, the Wall Street Journal said it uncovered evidence that Wal-Mart competitors, such as Safeway and other grocers, were paying a consulting firm to thwart expansion of Wal-Mart's retail and distribution centers in various cities, including Merced.
This week, Friedman declined to comment on the Journal's story, and messages to the company weren't returned. Keith Wagner, a lawyer with MARG, also declined to comment Monday.
In any event, the issue of who's paying opponents' attorneys fees won't matter much until after the case is decided. "It's not of consequence" until then, Diaz added. "We had a huge and significant participation in the process, and while there may have been outside influences, our position has always been to support the right of our citizens to participate in the process."
Because Wal-Mart's counsel raised the issue in June in a discovery motion, Diaz said, "We believe that that issue needs to be dealt with after the merits of the case are dealt with."
The Journal story said a consulting firm, Saint Consulting Group, had been paid by Safeway to organize more than 30 campaigns against Wal-Mart projects in the state over the past eight years.
In June, Judge William Burby said the case would proceed apart from the discovery request, which was granted.
The City Council approved the center in September 2009, which proposes the construction and operation of a 1.1-million-square-foot center on a 230-acre site at the northwest corner of Gerard Avenue and Tower Road.
Wal-Mart has been trying to open a distribution center in Merced for the past four years, in the midst of a battle between the city and MARG. The alliance has accused the city of violating the California Environmental Quality Act. CEQA is a statute that requires state and local agencies to identify the significant environmental impacts of their actions.
Both sides are still waiting to hear from Judge Burby after opening statements earlier this month.
Reporter Ameera Butt can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or firstname.lastname@example.org.