A New Bridge Across the Detroit River: Conflict of Interest?

Michigan Radio

By Jack Lessenberry

Here’s something you may not know about journalists: We have a pretty high standard of integrity, especially when it comes to conflicts of interest. We normally don’t cover any events in which we have any kind of personal interest — especially economic interest.

Any time we even suspect we may have any conflict, we are obliged to tell our bosses, and our public. There are some gray areas, but I can tell you this. If I did a commentary urging you to support someone who gave me thousands of dollars, I’d be fired.

But a version of that is going on in the Michigan Legislature, where today, the state senate’s economic development committee is scheduled to vote on whether to send two bills authorizing a new Detroit River bridge to the full senate.

Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville, who supports the new bridge, thinks he can get enough votes. Others aren’t so sure.

But here’s something I am sure about:  At least four of the seven members of this committee have a big conflict of interest.

They took campaign money from the only real force opposing the New International Trade Crossing: Ambassador Bridge owner Matty Moroun, who desperately wants to preserve his monopoly control of this nation’s most economically important trade crossing.

Take Senator Geoff Hansen, for example, a Republican from the town of Hart on the west side of the state, who was elected in a tight race last year. He told Crain’s Detroit Business he “thinks” members of the Moroun family gave his campaign four thousand dollars, but denied this had influenced him in any way.

Senator Mike Nofs said the same, while admitting that he won his job in a special election during which he says he got “a couple thousand from the Moroun family.” Committee Chair Mike Kowall took Moroun’s money too, and so did Senator Judy Emmons.

Well, they may all be above being influenced. But that’s not what Matty Moroun thinks. He wants a return on his investment. Specifically, he wants to kill any new bridge, by any means necessary. And he has been very successful at getting lawmakers who’ve taken his money to stop the bridge.

If they stop it for good, however, Michigan will be the biggest loser. We’ll miss out on more than two billion dollars in federal highway funds. A new bridge will be built somewhere else, and we’ll lose more jobs.

I have never in my life seen an issue like this. Democrats say we need a new bridge; so do Republicans. The conservative Michigan Chamber of Commerce wants a bridge.

The CEOs of Ford, GM and Chrysler say this bridge is essential. William Ford Jr. said yesterday that the aged Ambassador Bridge is “becoming capacity strained, which is costing our region money and, ultimately, jobs.”

There is virtually no one outside the Michigan legislature opposed to a new bridge, except for those who work for the Morouns.

If any of these lawmakers on that committee vote against the bridge today, they will have been guilty of taking money to vote for a special interest. And they will have voted against what politicians on the right and on the left agree is the good of the people.

If that’s not shocking, I don’t know what is.