Political marketplace

When it comes to politics of the highest bidder, we have the best government money can buy

Feb 8, 2012 at 12:00 am

What would you think if you learned, say, that Gov. Rick Snyder gave me a thousand dollars to write a favorable column about him?

Naturally, you'd conclude that nothing I wrote would ever have any credibility again. Not that you would be reading me any longer; the Metro Times would fire me or any other columnist immediately if they found out I was on the take. So would any decent publication.

Now what would you think if I could prove that your lawmakers were taking thousands of dollars in thinly disguised bribes to vote against a project very much in the public interest?

Keep reading; I am about to do just that.

First, imagine there was a badly needed project that conservatives and liberals agreed the state needed. The governor said it was not only necessary, it wouldn't cost us one cent.

Ford, General Motors and Chrysler endorsed this project. So did every chamber of commerce in sight. Economists said this would create at least 10,000 good-paying jobs, some of them permanent.

Both Washington and the Canadian national governments wanted this project so much they offered Michigan two incredible deals.

Canada would cover every penny of Michigan's costs. We can pay them back later, interest-free, when the project starts making money for the state. Washington said we could use the $550 million Canada was willing to loan us to qualify for $2.2 billion in badly needed highway funds to fix Michigan roads.

Yet the project was opposed by one 84-year-old billionaire, because while it would do wonders for Michigan, it might hurt his ability to make even more money. So he began paying off lawmakers.

He spent millions to run TV commercials to confuse the public, ads that independent analysts agree are lies from beginning to end. He poured cash into campaign coffers, and slipped money to officeholders in other ways. And that's still happening now.

What's more, we have documented proof of at least some of it, thanks to what flimsy campaign finance reporting laws we do have. For those of you who have been trapped in a mine shaft, I am talking, of course, about one Manuel "Matty" Moroun, who is to our community what a large and bloated tick might be to a poor little dog.

New campaign finance reports released last week show that last year, Matty Moroun, along with his wife, son and daughter-in-law, gave at least $242,000 to various state-related political funds.

The total figure was probably considerably higher, because under our inadequate laws, political action committee spending for the last two months of 2011 doesn't have to be disclosed until April. 

The Morouns didn't give this money to help democracy. They own the aging Ambassador Bridge, which was constructed in 1929 and remains the only way to effectively get mass amounts of heavy freight across the Detroit River — something like $125 billion worth every year.

There is no backup for that bridge, and no way we could avoid an economic disaster if anything happened to it.

That's why everyone agrees a second span is necessary. Except the Morouns, who might be forced to survive on the $1.5 billion they are worth now. They've been determined to stop it.

So for years, they gave lavishly to the campaign committees of lawmakers; including those who were most instrumental in preventing any bill supporting a new bridge from reaching the full Legislature. 

Take state Sen. Mike Kowall (R-White Lake) for example. He's the chair of the Senate Economic Development Committee, and did the most to prevent the bridge bill from reaching the Senate floor, where all the members could have voted on it.

Officially, the Morouns only gave him $1,000, considerably less than Democrat Virgil Smith (D-Detroit) who took $3,000 of the Morouns' money and also voted against the bill (he said, because he was concerned the new bridge wouldn't do enough for the neighborhood).

But in reality, Kowall and his wife Eileen, a state representative, got more — much more. Rich Robinson, who runs a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization called the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, helped me sort through the filings.

Records show that Moroun family members gave $50,000 to an organization called Knights of the Round Table two years ago. This has nothing to do with Camelot; it is a political vehicle for Mike Bishop, the former bumbling state Senate Majority Leader who slavishly did Moroun's bidding while in office.

Bishop's Round Table then gave $12,000 last year to something called the North Oakland Political Action Committee, which seems to exist solely for the personal benefit of the Kowalls. "It was used as a vehicle to get goods and services to the Kowalls' campaigns," said Robinson, who spends his time studying these reports, and attempting to bring information like this to light.

Indeed, the North Oakland PAC gave $6,144 in "in-kind goods and services" to the "Friends of Mike Kowall" and $3,144 to "Friends of Eileen Kowall." Nice when you can keep things all in the family.

By the way, ever wonder why, since our Republican governor wants a new bridge, his party hasn't supported him? No mystery here; the Morouns gave $100,000 to the Michigan GOP last year!

They also gave $20,000 to help real estate developer Bobby Schostak's successful bid to be state party chair.

There are lots more of our lawmakers on the take, and lots more numbers; you can find the gory details online; a good place to start is the Campaign Finance Network (mcfn.org). There used to be a joke that we had the best government money could buy.

Actually, we have much worse: a collection of politicians who have sold out and sold us to the troll behind the old bridge. By the way, I started out by comparing them to a columnist taking a bribe. Actually, what the Kowalls and their ilk have done is much worse. Writers speak only for themselves. The Kowalls are our elected representatives, and they sold us to a narrow interest.

We could do something about this, if we wanted to; but doing so will take a lot of hard work. So let's start. Once upon a time, we defeated the fascists. Are we today going to be content to see our souls, our future and our democracy given up to a fat, greedy billionaire?


Council by districts: For years, Detroit has suffered under a disastrous system in which all city council members were elected at large. This meant that none was responsible for any particular neighborhood. Nor was there anything to prevent all of them from living in the same, safest neighborhood in the city.

The results are easily visible to anyone who gets off the freeway and drives around most of the city's mean streets. Now, the city is moving to a more sensible system of seven district council members and two who would be elected at-large. The question now: How to draw the districts? Currently, there are four options on the table.

None of them, however, is totally satisfactory. Two split the downtown, which makes no sense. Two others keep downtown more or less together, but divide the rest of the city up into odd vertical or horizontal chunks that don't follow traditional neighborhoods.

Data Driven Detroit, the area's best demographics analysis firm, has come up with a fifth option that is far superior to the others. It keeps most neighborhoods together, as well as the downtown.

Voters ought to urge council to consult with DDD's Kurt Metzger, known locally as the Great Demographer, and consider this option. For a look, see datadrivendetroit.org.