Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Moroun, Stamper headed back to court, maybe back to jail

Posted By on Tue, Feb 7, 2012 at 1:14 PM

If we were in the well-polished shoes of Manuel “Matty” Moroun and Dan Stamper, we’d be packing a toothbrush and some soap-on-a-rope in advance of Thursday’s Wayne County Circuit Court appearance before Judge Prentis Edwards.

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Given Monday’s ruling by a three-member panel of the Michigan Court of Appeals, the stage is now set for a return visit to the slammer for the two Detroit International Bridge Company officials.

As explained in an opinion written by Kristen Frank Kelly, the appellate court ruled that Edwards was entirely within his rights to jail Moroun and Stamper for contempt of court. In doing so, the court struck down claims from defense attorneys that their clients were being denied the constitutionally protected right to due process.

From the outset, that struck us as a particularly ludicrous claim.

This issue has its roots in a contract signed by the bridge company and the Michigan Department of Transportation in 2004. The two agreed to work together on the Gateway Project, which was intended to improve freeway access to the Ambassador Bridge and get truck traffic off of surface streets in southwest Detroit.

The problem is that the bridge company hasn’t lived up to its part of the deal, unilaterally changing plans in a way that interferes with completing the project as originally intended.

The state filed a lawsuit in 2009. Prentice ruled against the company in January 2010 and ordered it to remove what shouldn’t have been built — including fuel pumps and a portion of a duty free shop, as well as an approach ramp leading to a hoped for second span adjacent to the Ambassador — and complete the project as originally agreed to.

In 2011, after a year of delay, Edwards briefly jailed Stamper for contempt.

After another year of inaction on the part of the bridge company — and many hours spent in court with the bridge company arguing that there is no real plan for it to follow — Edwards, rightfully fed up with the company’s persistent refusal to obey the court’s order, threw Moroun and Stamper back in the pokey.

So there was plenty of due process. If anything, their jailing last month was an overdue part of the process.

In sending the pair to jail, Edwards said they could get out when the entire project was completed as designed, or the two men were no longer in a position to see that the work is carried out.

The Court of Appeals ordered the two men be released while their appeal was being considered. Now the way has been cleared for Edwards to put them back behind bars.

It is conceivable that Stamper could avoid going back behind bars if he is removed as president of the bridge company. As for Moroun, he’d have to give up ownership. In the highly unlikely event that did happen, he’d be leaving his wife and son — also owners — to face the wrath of Edwards.

As is typical of the bridge company, it struck back ferociously at Edwards, producing a television commercial that attacked the judge’s ethics. Among other things, the appellate court ruling confirms that Edwards followed the law and acted properly.

The only issue the Court of Appeals had with what Edwards did concerns what was required of the two men to win their freedom.

Completing the project as designed will take from six months to a year. Because of the length of time involved, the appellate court ruled, the two men were not given “the keys to the jailhouse.”

What the appellate court said was, if Edwards is inclined to send Moroun and Stamper back to jail, he has to craft an order that spells out more specifically what must be done to win release.

That seems easy enough to do. The obstacles standing in the way of completing the project — especially the so-called “ramp to nowhere” — can be clearly identified. Moroun and Stamper don’t need to make sure the project is completed. All they need to do is have those obstacles removed to show Edwards that they intend to comply with his order.

By demanding that be done as a condition of their release, Edwards can send the two back to jail with key in hand.

There is, however, one more wild card left in Moroun’s constantly shuffled deck. An appeal to the Michigan Supreme Court, given the bridge company’s history of trying to stymie justice by deceit and delay, seems entirely possible.

 

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