Politics & Prejudices: Guess who stole our port authority?

Oct 7, 2015 at 1:00 am

OK, kids, this may be a hard one. But here are a couple of clues. A) Who was the most corrupt mayor in Detroit's modern history, a guy still in federal prison?

B) Who is the most selfish and greedy billionaire you can name, an 88-year-old who thinks $1.8 billion isn't enough, and who cares only about expanding his power and his wealth?

Duh ... guess that wasn't so hard. Matter of fact, if you didn't say Kwame Kilpatrick and Matty Moroun, you clearly spent the last decade on another planet.

We've known a lot of what they've done to us for a long time. Kwame's crimes are too many to count. Moroun is well-known on both sides of the Detroit River as an odious slumlord and the monopoly owner of the aging Ambassador Bridge.

Moroun has spent millions and has deeply corrupted our legislature and other politicians in an attempt to prevent a badly needed, publicly owned second bridge from being built.

He's evidently failed at that, but he's still trying.

But what most people are only beginning to realize is that his tentacles extend much further than that.

Ten years ago, Kilpatrick and Moroun cooked up a deal — appropriately called the "Master Concession Agreement" — whereby the Moroun family was given essentially total control over the Detroit/Wayne County Port Authority.

The details of this sweetheart deal have to be read to be believed. Matty Moroun has virtually complete control over the port and its revenues, and may keep it for a century.

Blogger and freelance investigator Joel Thurtell has been following this for years and has fought to bring this story to public attention. He says flatly that for all intents and purposes, "Matty owns the Detroit/Wayne County Port Authority."

This all happened back in 2005, when the news media were apparently asleep at the switch. The Detroit/Wayne County Port Authority had lost a client, and was short of cash.

Posing as a gallant white knight, Moroun was happy to lend the port authority, a sprawling 80-acre complex south of downtown, the $2.1 million it needed. In return, he got conditions the worst loan shark could only envy.

To begin with, the port authority has to pay on the loan — apparently for something like forever. The interest rate fluctuates, but is never less than 6 percent. Incredibly, John Loftus, the official executive director of the port authority, told the Detroit Free Press he has never seen a schedule that would indicate when the loan will be fully paid off.

So far the port has paid back $1.3 million — but the total outstanding balance has actually grown, to $2.2 million.

Meantime, Moroun has virtually complete control of the port authority and its revenues. In "Morounopoly," an article — published on his blog almost four years ago — Thurtell spells out some of the incredible details. Moroun controls at least 97.5 percent of the authority's entire gross revenues.

Actually, that figure may be even higher.

Thurtell noted that according to the Master Concession Agreement, "whenever he needs to invest in the port, he gets to charge the cost of construction or equipment or whatever to the port authority ... plus six percent interest."

"In the Moroun portfolio of corrupt deals, the port contract is one of the most blatant, and double-dealing public officials were part of the conspiracy," said Gregg Ward, vice-president of the Detroit-Windsor Truck Ferry Company.

The Port Authority apparently doesn't even have the right to sell or dispose of the public property it owns without Moroun's permission. Most incredible of all, it apparently gave up its right to sue Moroun, no matter what.

According to the agreement, as quoted by Thurtell, who obtained a copy, "the Authority hereby waives any claim for breach of fiduciary duty or other cause of action in connection with any actions taken by Master Concessionaire."

If that weren't enough, Moroun has the right to buy any land the Port Authority wants to sell, and gets real estate tax exemptions from what he already owns.

Sweet? Well, yes indeed. Too sweet.

And possibly, illegal. Thurtell pointed out as early as February 2012, that City Council's research and analysis division concluded nine years ago that the deal may violate the law. It isn't clear if it was adopted at an open meeting.

The Open Meetings Act requires that it does. What is clear is that the Kilpatrick administration didn't want the public to know the details of its giveaway to Moroun: Every page of the agreement was stamped "confidential." According to the council's researchers, "The entire flavor of this Master Concession Agreement ... appears to render the Detroit/Wayne County Port Authority nearly constructively powerless to independently exercise its legal rights, duties and privileges."

Incredibly, nobody paid attention to Thurtell's groundbreaking journalism, or his warnings.

Then, finally, two weeks ago, the Detroit-Wayne County Port Authority Board decided that it finally had enough. They voted unanimously to ask Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette to look into the "legality and validity" of the port authority's contract with Moroun, aka the Ambassador Port Co.

Well, lots of luck with that.

The Port Authority may not have realized it, but Moroun owns a chunk of the attorney general as well.

Rich Robinson, who runs the non-partisan, nonprofit Michigan Campaign Finance network, checked the records and reported that the Moroun family has given Schuette's campaign fund at least $21,000 since he started running for attorney general five years ago. Matty also gave him $3,400 back in 2002, when Schuette wasn't running for anything,

They may actually have given him more. The Republican Attorneys General Association donated more than $1 million to Schuette's re-election campaign as well.

Unfortunately, their records aren't easily searchable, unless you have the time to thumb through hundreds of pages of records. Now there are some who might say that our state attorney general wouldn't be the least swayed by this.

That Bill Schuette will pursue justice fairly and impartially no matter where that takes him. You might say that, but nobody could with a straight face. Schuette has been the most blatantly partisan state attorney general anyone can remember.

Every move he makes is politically calculated to appease the far right, and feather his nest so that he can win the Republican nomination for governor in three years.

Schuette ignores cases he should take; he had to be dragged with great difficulty into agreeing to investigate the Courser-Gamrat political corruption scandal.

But he is quick to issue opinions on things that have nothing to do with his job, like the road repair ballot proposal or the President's agreement to stop Iran's nuclear program.

I'm sure that he wouldn't think twice about alienating a powerful billionaire who could donate large sums, some of it effectively laundered, to his — or a rival's — campaign.

Good luck with that, poor port authority.

I should have said, good luck, fellow taxpayers.

By the way, you might remember this story the next time someone argues that Kwame Kilpatrick got too harsh of a sentence. The fact is that it probably wasn't harsh enough.

And the real travesty is that his octogenarian billionaire buddy isn't sharing his cell.

Jack Lessenberry is head of the journalism program at Wayne State University and the senior political analyst for Michigan Public Radio.