Public interest ...

Bridge company lawyer raises specter of terror is bid to hold park

Feb 2, 2011 at 12:00 am

News Hits has reported on its fair share of legal issues over the years, but before last week we'd never witnessed anything quite like the presentation made by attorney William Seikaly in Wayne County Circuit Court.

Seikaly, one of the stable of lawyers used by the Detroit International Bridge Co., has served the owners of the Ambassador Bridge well over the years. In Judge Kathleen Macdonald's courtroom last week, though, Seikaly put on a truly astounding performance as he attempted to defend a case for which there is no legitimate defense.

If you follow News Hits, you've read before about Detroit's Riverside Park and the swath of public land the bridge company has fenced off and is refusing to give back. We keep coming back to it because we think it is an important case.

In the days after the 9/11 attacks, the bridge company, with the permission of then-Mayor Dennis Archer, put up a chain-link fence as a security precaution. But Archer has said that it was only intended to be a temporary measure. And, as the city's attorneys have pointed out, Archer's permission means nothing legally. It is up to the City Council to approve any land transfer, and it never did.

It's not so much the land itself. The part of the park where the fence is — known formally as the Riverside Park Extension — hasn't been much used for a long time. The city could give up the 150-foot wide strip being occupied by the company and never notice the difference.

No, what is important in this case is the principle that's at stake: Can the politically powerful company owned by Grosse Pointe billionaire Manuel "Matty" Moroun place itself above the law and seize control of a piece of city-owned property and then remain there without having any legitimate right to the land?

That is the question Judge Macdonald has to answer. And it would seem on the surface like a no-brainer. But this is a case that first went to District Court in November 2008. The bridge company lost there, then appealed.

As he did previously, attorney Seikaly tried his best to confuse the issue when making his final arguments in front of Judge Macdonald.

He raised the specter of the parkland's previous use as an industrial site, and the contamination of the land during that time. But that parkland could be a toxic dump worse than the Love Canal, and that still doesn't give the bridge company any legitimate claim to it.

And, as we said, although Archer may have given a nod of approval to the fence when it first went up, that means nothing when the city charter requires that council to sign off on land transfers.

But Seikaly's real kicker is the national security imperative of protecting the privately owned bridge. We agree that the bridge is a legitimate terrorist target. In terms of commercial activity, the Ambassador is the busiest border crossing in North America; if it were to be taken out of commission, the economic harm caused would be massive.

In his closing, Seikaly showed an image of a Time magazine cover on a screen. The image contained silhouettes, and asked the question of who bore responsibility for allowing the 9/11 terrorist attacks to occur.

Who wants to be the person here to shoulder the blame if the Ambassador is successfully attacked, Seikaly asked.

The consequences are so severe, argued Seikaly, it is necessary to dispense with "legal and community niceties" and just turn the land over to the bridge company.

Attorneys for the city have not spent much time trying to clear up the smoke being blown by Seikaly. Instead, they have kept their focus on the legal facts, which are clearly on their side.

As for the security alarm Seikaly keeps sounding, there are other options. It has been reported that the Ambassador generates about $60 million a year in revenue for the bridge company. If the company is really that afraid of terrorists, let them station a guard under the bridge around the clock. Whatever that might cost, it would still be a huge bargain given the value of the asset they would protect.

But the issue isn't really security. Clearly, the bridge company wants the city land so that it can use it to help build a hoped-for second span of the Ambassador. Macdonald needs to see that and not get buffaloed into believing otherwise.