Matty Moroun loses a big one

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised at Judge Beverly Hayes-Sipes’ ruling that the Detroit International Bridge Co. is illegally occupying a section of Riverside Park. After all, from the time nearly a year ago when city of first sued to regain control of land that the company fenced off just after the 9/11 attacks, it has seemed obvious the company owned by billionaire Manuel “Matty” Moroun didn’t have a legal leg to stand on. Nonetheless, it appeared at times as if the 36th District Court judge might have been buying the bridge company’s claims that the fence was needed to protect its adjacent Ambassador Bridge from terrorists. In the bridge company’s view, security concerns trumped the city’s right to control its own property. And there’s no doubt the bridge — which carries about 25 percent of all the goods moving between the United States and Canada — is a legitimate target for terrorists looking to cause economic havoc. But when Hayes-Sipes recently issued her written opinion, she came down squarely on the side of the city, giving the company 90 days to take down the fence and clear off the parkland. I’ve been following the story ever since former Free Press reporter-turned-blogger Joel Thurtell first wrote about his encounter with a “shotgun-toting” security guard who tried to detain him for taking pictures of the bridge from public property. Along the way, here’s some of what we learned: The bridge company put up signs warning that trespassers on the 150-foot swath of public parkland would be prosecuted, and invoked the specter of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to really throw a scare into people. But, as we reported last year — and was substantiated in court — no one from Homeland Security on any level ever authorized the fence. Despite the bridge company’s claims that security was a paramount concern, there’s no equivalent fence along the eastern (downtown) side of the bridge — even though bridge company President Dan Stamper insisted that fences completely blocked off access to the bridge. After this paper produced a video clip proving Stamper’s claim to be false, WXYZ TV’s Heather Catallo did a similar report. She captured a stammering Stamper on tape claiming to be surprised to learn that said fence didn’t actually exist. As I wrote previously, how stupid does he think the public is? Did he really expect people to believe that a company supposedly so concerned about security matters could not have known that this crucial piece of infrastructure was somehow left partially unprotected, and that this oversight was accidentally left uncorrected for eight years? Despite the repeated claims about security concerns, it became clear that the bridge company wants control of the parkland so that it can build a second span adjacent to its Ambassador Bridge. Obtaining the property is so crucial the company told the U.S. Coast Guard, which is responsible for granting permission for the new bridge, that it had already obtained the land. Can you say “credibility problem”? It’s important to note at this point that, with the removal from office of former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, whose relationship with Matty was far too close for comfort, the city is finally standing up to Moroun. That began during Ken Cockrel’s brief mayoral stint and is continuing under the Bing administration. This court victory is important too. It shows that even someone as politically powerful as Moroun isn’t above the law, and that fear of terrorism — even when the concerns are legitimate — doesn’t justify trampling on people’s rights. “I’ve never seen anything quite like it,” says Thurtell about the way the whole thing played out. Among other things, it demonstrates the impact a lone reporter with an independent blog can have in our new media world. “Because of the perceived need for balance, I couldn’t have written that story the way I did if I was still at the Free Press or any other conventional newspaper,” he says. “But with the blog, I was able to just go home and write it. I was upset about the way I was treated, and then I found out that others had been treated the same way.” “I think there was this groundswell of opposition to Matty Moroun out there,” he observes. “What writing that story did was like opening up a valve.” Thurtell didn’t do it by himself, of course. This rag has been all over the story, and other local media eventually picked up on it as well. And now the city has wrested control of its park back from a man so rich and powerful he seemed not that long ago to have an air of invincibility. No more. As Thurtell says, “It’s really quite amazing.”