Found in contempt, Matty strikes back

The bridge baron stoops to new lows in wake of court ruling

Nov 9, 2011 at 12:00 am

Just when you think the owners of the Ambassador Bridge couldn't possibly sink any deeper, wallowing as they do in the nether regions of that pit of slime known as the Detroit International Bridge Company, they outdo themselves by delivering a blow that's not only dirty but dumb.

We're talking about the statement issued by Matthew Moroun following a ruling last week by Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Prentis Edwards that the bridge company is in contempt for failing to abide by the court's previous order to complete its share of the Gateway Project.

That project is a $230 million effort to improve freeway access to the privately owned Ambassador Bridge and remove truck traffic from surface streets in the southwest Detroit neighborhood where the company has built a sprawling truck plaza featuring fueling stations and a duty-free shop.

The project was supposed to have been completed by April 2008, with the Michigan Department of Transportation undertaking a major reconfiguration of Interstates 75 and 96 in the area around the bridge. The bridge company, for its part, signed a contract committing it to do specified work on property it owned. 

The problem, claimed the state in a lawsuit filed way back in June 2009, is the bridge company unilaterally made changes to the plan. Among other things, it built an approach ramp to a new bridge the company wants to build next to its existing span. That second bridge has yet to be approved by either the U.S. Coast Guard, which must issue a permit before construction can proceed, or the Canadian government.

In February 2010, Edwards ruled that the company had to abide by the terms of the contract it signed with the state and build and construct the project according to the plans that had been agreed to. In January, after the company twice failed to get the case heard before a federal judge, Edwards found the company in civil contempt and sent company President Dan Stamper to jail for a few hours.

After the company again failed to complete the project as designed — a task that includes tearing down what News Hits likes to call the "ramp to nowhere" — lawyers for MDOT again brought the matter before Edwards. 

News Hits has been present for much of the legal wrangling that's been going on in this case over the past few years, and as far as we can tell, Edwards has spent an enormous amount of time letting attorneys for the bridge company make their case, making the same losing arguments over and over and over. 

Frankly, the only thing we're surprised at is how long the judge has let things drag on. Maybe he has been taking pains to make sure that, should the company attempt to appeal to a higher court, his rulings are bulletproof. 

Which brings us to last week's ruling by Edwards that the company, despite repeated promises that it will abide by the terms of the contract, has failed to comply and therefore was again found to be in contempt.

Along with scheduling a hearing to determine the exact framework for designating an outside party to complete the project, Edwards also ordered that Stamper and Manuel "Matty" Moroun appear before him in January.

The reason for that wasn't made clear, but one possibility is that Edwards plans a repeat performance of what happened earlier this year when he sent Stamper to jail, only this time around he's going to have cuffs slapped on Matty as well.

And how did the bridge company respond? By sending in Matty's son Matthew, vice chair of the DIBC, to issue a statement that amounted to little more than a sleazy sucker punch.

"The opinion issued today has no legal or factual basis," claimed Moroun the younger. "The Ambassador Bridge can only conclude that the politics in Lansing have influenced this lawsuit."

The reasoning goes like this: Gov Rick Snyder supports construction of a publicly owned bridge a few miles downriver from the Ambassador. Edwards, according to Moroun, has a son, Prentis Edwards Jr., who is seeking to be appointed by Snyder to a spot on the 36th District Court bench. 

Put the two together, and the nasty implication is that Edwards, in order to grease the way for his son's appointment, is trying to get on Snyder's good side by ruling against Matty and company.

Never mind the fact that Edwards first ruled against the company back in February 2010, well before Snyder was elected governor.

We put in a call to Tom Shields, spokesman for the far-reaching coalition that has banded together to support what is now being called the New International Trade Crossing, to get his take on all this.

Turns out he's as dumbfounded by the bridge company's response as we are.

"I don't think it's a particularly smart move to taunt the hangman," is the way Shields puts it, adding cheerfully that Edwards "is the only thing standing between Matty and an orange suit."

In other words, it appears to be an astoundingly stupid move by people who can afford to get the best advice money can by. But, when you can afford to have a majority of the Michigan Legislature on retainer, maybe good advice isn't all that important.

What is important, though, is this: Matty is going backward in his efforts to build a new bridge next to the Ambassador, and Snyder, for the time being, anyway, is going nowhere with the effort to build, in partnership with Canada, a publicly owned span downriver.

As a result, Matty wins by maintaining a virtual monopoly over cross-border commercial traffic between Detroit and Windsor, and the entire region loses. Not only in terms of construction jobs being lost, but also in the potential loss of industry that, facing the uncertainty of the current situation, looks to locate someplace else. Someplace where there is a guarantee the trucks moving goods back and forth across the border won't be idling in traffic tie-ups, wasting time and money.

If greed and the profound lack of a civic conscience were a crime, Matty would have been sent to jail long ago. If he keeps defying Edwards, and then besmirching him to boot, we might yet get to see how an octogenarian billionaire looks wearing an orange jumpsuit.