The judge’s jailing order was hardly capricious or unexpected
By Curt Guyette
If you want to understand what the Moroun family values are, look no further than the statement issued by Matthew Moroun when his billionaire father, Manuel “Matty” Moroun, was jailed last week.
“Without a trial, without a jury, with no notice stating the reasons for them to appear, a judge viciously lashed out at Matty Moroun and Dan Stamper today and ordered a penalty outside the bounds of a civil case that was excessive, unwarranted and outrageous,” Moroun the younger declared.
And what can we take from that statement? Simply this: You cannot believe a word that comes from the mouths of these people.
Now, if you were to take Matthew Moroun’s statement at face value, you would believe that, out of nowhere, Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Prentis Edwards, on a sudden and inexplicable whim, ordered the elder Moroun and Detroit International Bridge Co. President Stamper into court and then, without provocation or forewarning, had them hauled away to the hoosegow.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
The jailing of Moroun has been a long time coming, and the stable of lawyers working on behalf of him and his company had ample time to prepare a defense for their client.
How do we know this? Because, as they like to say in court, there is documented evidence showing what is true, and what is not.
And the truth in this instance is that, on Nov. 3, 2011, Edwards issued an opinion and order saying, in effect, that the people calling the shots for the Detroit International Bridge Co. — which owns the Ambassador Bridge linking Detroit and Windsor — had spent the past two years willfully violating an explicit court order.
That order involves the bridge company’s share of the $230 million Gateway Project, a public-private venture the DIBC and Michigan Department of Transportation entered into back in April 2004.
The goal of the project, which was partly funded with federal dollars, was to improve freeway connections to the Ambassador Bridge. The people of southwest Detroit supported the project because part of the deal included the construction of a roadway that would keep bridge truck traffic off local surface streets.
According to the contract signed with the state, it fell on the DIBC to construct that part of the project. The problem is that the company unilaterally changed the plan. In part, it constructed a towering approach ramp to a hoped-for new bridge — a bridge, we should point out, that has received approval from neither the United States nor Canadian governments. And that ramp to nowhere, referred to in court documents as Pier 19, stands in the way of the roadway the bridge company is contractually obligated to build.
There’s also the matter of a lucrative duty-free shop and diesel pumps that are also in conflict with the original design. There’s another problem as well: At least some of that construction covers a section of 23rd Street, and the city of Detroit never gave the company legal authority to commandeer that public right of way. (That matter, too, is the subject of a separate long-running court battle.)
So, instead of being completed by 2008 as was originally planned, the project has been tied up in court for nearly three years.
In June 2009, MDOT sued the bridge company, asking that it complete its share of the project. The company since then has been arguing that there is no actual concrete plan showing exactly what it is that it’s contractually obligated to do.
In February 2010, Edwards rejected that argument, telling the company that it’s clear what its share of the project is, and that it had to do the job.
After a year of inaction on the part of the company, Edwards sent what should have been a clear message that he wasn’t fooling around with this and ordered Stamper to jail.
The company responded by immediately beginning some cosmetic work that made it appear that it was finally willing to abide by the court’s order, and Stamper was released after a few hours.
Then, according to MDOT, the company went back to ignoring the court’s order to complete the project as agreed to.
And so, in November, Edwards’ patience — which through hearing after repetitious hearing appeared to News Hits to be nothing short of remarkable — finally reached a breaking point.
We offer this detailed history so that people understand Matthew Moroun’s claim that Edwards somehow caught his father off guard, and that due process was wrongfully denied, is a lie that’s so outrageous that it is both laughable and contemptible.
In his Nov. 3 decision ordering Stamper and Moroun to appear in court last week, Edwards points out that in civil cases such as this, when one of the parties refuses to abide by the court’s order, “imprisonment may be imposed” until the order is carried out, or those in prison are no longer in a position to see that it is adhered to.
That, by the way, is why both Matty and Stamper hastily submitted resignations from the DIBC’s board of directors. It was a bit of flimflam that Edwards didn’t swallow.
What can be lost in all this are the human consequences found in the bridge company’s adamant refusal to abide by the contract it signed, instead looking out for its own financial well-being.
When the people of southwest Detroit agreed to support the Gateway Project, it wasn’t because they relished the idea of a massive new truck plaza in their back yard. Instead, they said, they were willing to accept that in return for the promise that thousands of trucks rolling down their streets, and making their lives miserable, would be removed as a daily nuisance.
That is why some people sitting in the courtroom applauded when Edwards said Moroun and Stamper would be going to jail.
Or at least part of the reason.
Because the frustration experienced by the residents of southwest Detroit isn’t due just to the Gateway Project fiasco. It is born of decades of dealing with a company that repeatedly acts as if it were above the law and beholden to nothing but its own bottom line.
That is why a group of area residents took the law into their own hands and tore down a fence the bridge company had illegally erected in Riverside Park, commandeering a piece of public property that it wanted to use in order to build that hoped-for second bridge.
Although one judge had already ruled that the company was obligated to remove the fence, the DIBC did what it is so adept at: it stalled by tying the matter up in yet another court.
The same sort of anger and frustration were on display late last year when area residents, joined by supporters of the Occupy movement, marched en masse on the Ambassador, briefly shutting it down.
That’s what happens when government and the courts don’t enforce the law. Denied justice, people will take it upon themselves to set things right.
It is difficult to imagine a family more politically powerful than the Morouns. Single-handedly, they were able to buy off enough of the state Legislature to forestall approval of a publicly owned bridge that would threaten the virtual monopoly they now enjoy.
It takes real guts to stare that sort of power in the face, and then put it in its rightful place. And in this case, that place should be behind bars, because Moroun and Stamper are the public face of an outlaw company.
The pair has won a reprieve, with a three-member panel of the state Court of Appeals ordering the two men released pending their appeal of Edwards’ order.
After Edwards decided that jail was needed to “coerce” Moroun and Stamper into making sure the DIBC fulfills its obligation to complete the Gateway Project as designed, more than a few people pointed to the jailing of a billionaire as proof that no one is above the law, no matter how wealthy and powerful they might be.
But with the two men gaining their release after spending just one night behind bars — having chowed down on a specially catered meal provided by the swank Detroit Athletic Club instead of the standard jail fare — we remain skeptical.
This much is clear, though: When it comes to the Gateway Project, real justice has yet to arrive for the beleaguered residents of southwest Detroit in particular, and taxpayers in general. It won’t be achieved until the project is completed as designed.
If attaining that goal means putting Moroun and Stamper back in jail, then we can only hope that other judges have the same sort of integrity and fortitude Prentis Edwards displayed last week.