Contemplating contempt

Although his name never came up, Detroit International Bridge Company owner Manuel "Matty" Moroun got slapped down big time by Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Prentis Edwards last week.

The person who did get mentioned by name — DIBC President Dan Stamper — couldn't have been too happy at the way things played out either. Edwards ordered Stamper to appear on May 10 and explain why he shouldn't be cited for contempt.

Too bad. Not that Stamper is going to have to account for the company's actions — or, more specifically, inaction, since it hasn't complied with a judicial order issued on Feb. 1 — but that it isn't Matty himself who's being forced into court to explain why he and DIBC continue to act as if they were above the law.

The bridge company is involved in a labyrinthine tangle of litigation as it attempts to both build a new span adjacent to the Ambassador Bridge it owns and stop construction of a publicly owned one downriver.

There's also the ongoing legal tussle over the company's attempt to keep control of a swath of Riverside Park it fenced off next to the bridge. And then there's the sprawling Gateway Project, a $230-million effort to improve bridge-freeway access, involving the bridge company and the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT).

Here's the deal on that issue: After much negotiation, including lots of input from the public, MDOT and the company entered into a contract spelling out exactly what each party would do. For its part, the state — with the help of $140 million contributed by the feds — did a massive amount of work on Interstates 75 and 96.

The problem is that the bridge company made unilateral changes to the plan they were contractually obligated to abide by. The state, to its credit, is insisting that Moroun and his minions stick to the agreement.

Edwards agrees with the state, and in February ordered the company to come up with a timetable for removing the pavement, duty-free shop and fuel pumps because they didn't conform to the original plan. The company also has to follow through with its obligation to construct a truck ramp intended to help keep bridge traffic off neighborhood streets in southwest Detroit.

Part of the state's concern is that the federal government will seek the return of its $140 million contribution to the project if the original plan isn't adhered to.

The company went to a higher court in an attempt to have that ruling stayed. The Michigan Court of Appeal denied that request in mid March.

Last week the company said it now plans to file an appeal with the Michigan Supreme Court.

But the thing about judges is they tend to get a little miffed when you don't follow their orders.

Though he remained calm and collected throughout last week's proceedings, Edwards made it clear that he's none too happy with the fact the company has made no attempt to comply with his Feb. 1 ruling.

In a way, that's understandable. As Stamper noted in a press release, the DIBC will have to shell out big bucks if forced to do what Edwards has ordered.

"We are concerned that Judge Edwards has, at the request of the Michigan Department of Transportation, ordered the destruction of millions of dollars in investments without allowing DIBC the right to a trial or the ability to call a single witness"

Typically, Stamper claims that the company's status as an instrument of the federal government — a point affirmed by the Michigan Supreme Court but currently being disputed by the federal government itself — should be taken into consideration here.

As it has done in the past, the bridge company is crying "national security" to help justify its actions. Edwards should be lauded for not allowing that argument to cloud the issue, which isn't all that complicated: Matty and his bridge company entered into an agreement and signed a contract, and the law says they have to abide by that agreement.

It's really as simple as that, no matter how much the company tries to claim otherwise.

Edwards also expressed dismay at the company's claim that it would take three years to comply with his order to tear out the illegal construction and do the work originally agreed to.

Calling that proposed schedule "appalling" and "completely unreasonable," Edwards told bridge company's lawyers that if the DIBC couldn't present a plan to do the work within one year, he would consider having the bonding agent that guaranteed the work take over the project.

In his statement, Stamper asserted that the DIBC "does not ignore court orders."

Judge Edwards should be applauded for making certain that's true. As lawyers for the state pointed out at last week's hearing, "It is time the DIBC is held accountable."

It looks as if that time has come.

News Hits is edited by Curt Guyette. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]