FILE - Gary and Matt Percy

Brothers Gary and Matt Percy walk their land in Canton Township, Michigan

Canton Township government harassed two Michigan brothers and their businesses after the brothers made public their complaints about a local ordinance and what they considered an excessive fine, a new lawsuit claims.

Gary and Matt Percy – the two business owners – were fined $450,000 last year by Canton Township for removing trees from their own property without the township's permission.

The Center Square, formerly Watchdog.org, published news stories documenting the brothers' criticism of the fine and ordinance. The brothers also discussed their concerns with state Sen. Tom Casperson, R-Escanaba, who filed a bill to address the tree removal ordinance. Casperson's measure passed the Senate, but did not get out of committee in the House.

The brothers' story soon gained national media attention.

The new lawsuit, filed against Canton Township by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, claims township officials have since harassed and retaliated against the Percys after they challenged the tree removal ordinance.

According to the lawsuit, the township started targeting the brothers’ other businesses on issues that were not related to the initial tree removal fine. The township brought environmental complaints that were later dismissed, and then repeatedly sent code officers to inspect the brothers’ trucking business, the lawsuit states.

The code officers now claim that three buildings owned by the brothers never received proper occupancy certificates.

According to the lawsuit, the buildings have been in constant use for the past 25 years and they passed every inspection. Additionally, the brothers never were told that the buildings lacked necessary permits. Their company employs about 700 people.

“Usually when you file a civil rights lawsuit, these sorts of bully tactics stop,” TPPF Attorney Chance Weldon said in a statement. “Here, the [t]ownship doubled down and started sending various code enforcement officers to the [Percys’] other businesses, just to hassle the brothers.”

The new lawsuit cites email correspondence with the township’s attorney as evidence the township intended to target the brothers.

In an email to the brothers’ lawyer, Michael Pattwell, township lawyer Kristin Bricker Kolb accused the brothers’ lawyers of “taking steps to try and apply political/public opinion pressure rather than working this out between the parties.”

The lawsuit says the "political/public opinion pressure" is in reference to a reporter from the Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity, now the Franklin News Foundation, investigating the brothers' complaints. The Center Square is a project of the Franklin News Foundation.

Kolb's email then said, “it is becoming clearer that these matters will not be resolved without a fight,” according to the lawsuit.

"Canton made good on its threat," the lawsuit claims, "by: 1) calling in environmental complaints against the Percy Brothers with state and county agencies (all of which were resolved or dismissed by the agencies); 2) falsely telling reporters that the Percy Brothers had been convicted of stealing water twenty years prior; and 3) repeatedly sending code enforcement officers to the Percy Brothers’ other businesses in search of other possible code violations unrelated to the initial notice of violation under the Tree Ordinance regarding tree removal from the Percy Brothers’ property."

Canton Township officials, contacted Thursday by The Center Square, declined to comment.

"Neither Canton Township nor any of the individual defendants have been served with the lawsuit yet," Kolb said in an email. "I cannot comment on something the Township has not been served with."

In other emails between attorneys for the township and the Percys, identified in the lawsuit, Kolb said the township received multiple threatening and harassing phone calls and emails after the media attention and that her family had to be put on police special enforcement detail to ensure safety. She then said that although this may not have been the intention of the Percy brothers’ lawyers, that “perhaps it was.”

Pattwell responded to the email, calling the accusation unwarranted and unhelpful and said the Percy brothers’ disagreement is a legal issue, not a personal one.

“The right to criticize government and the right to file constitutional claims against the government form the very core of the First Amendment’s protections of the freedom of speech and the right to petition,” the lawsuit argues. “Defendants may not attempt to punish plaintiffs for seeking to exercise and defend their core constitutional rights. Relief from this Court is necessary to prevent this pattern and practice of harassment from continuing.”

The ordinance that the two brothers spoke out against prohibited the removal of trees on private property without a government-issued permit. It levied fines up to $450 for each tree removed. The township used an adjacent property to estimate how many trees the brothers removed. The township initially assessed a fine of about $700,000, but then reduced it to $450,000.

The Percy brothers argued that the trees were all invasive species that needed to be removed to start a Christmas tree farm on the property, and that they thought they had an agricultural exemption.

The ordinance defines a tree as any woody plant that has a defined stem with a three inch diameter at chest height.

The lawsuit seeks to prevent the township from targeting the Percy Brothers’ businesses.

Reporter

Tyler Arnold reports on Virginia, Ohio and Michigan for The Center Square. He previously worked for the Cause of Action Institute and has been published in Business Insider, USA TODAY College, National Review Online and the Washington Free Beacon.