Moroun’s money writes sad tale for state

Phil Power/Bridge Magazine

You might not think finger-pointing could make a sound of its own, but it does. High, thin and very penetrating.

And it could be heard all over Lansing after last week’s vote in the Senate Economic Development Committee sunk — at least temporarily — the much-debated project to build another bridge connecting Detroit with Canada.

Start with Gov. Rick Snyder and Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, who had made the bridge a key legislative objective — and who suffered their first major setback. Lots of Lansing insiders sniffed that former Gov. John Engler could have done a better job of twisting arms.

Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville, R-Monroe,, whose job includes managing the Republican-controlled Senate, ducked responsibility after the vote, telling the MIRS news service: “I never said I was there to win over my own members. What I said was I would manage the process.”

Richardville and Senate Republicans blamed Senate Democrats for screwing things up and overplaying their hand by introducing, at the last moment, a bill containing “community benefits” for the Delray district in Detroit, where the new bridge would connect on the U.S. side.

When Republicans refused to include their demands, Senate Minority Floor Leader Tupac Hunter and Sen. Virgil Smith, both Detroit Democrats, abstained on the final vote, dooming the measure, which went down on a Republican-only 3-2 vote. (Technically, they voted not to send the bridge bills to the full Senate.)

For their part, Senate Democrats (who hold 12 of the Senate’s 38 seats) complained the Republicans reneged on a deal to include community benefits in the final bill. Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer, D-East Lansing,, said “You gotta deliver when you make a promise,” referring to Sen. Richardville.

Other Lansing insiders, who refused to be quoted by name, offered various comments:

“It was amateur hour,” said one, adding “You don’t schedule a vote unless you’ve got the votes.”

Another commented that the bridge bill was “everybody’s No. 2 issue.”

Meanwhile, the Matthew Moroun family’s Detroit International Bridge Co. was tightly focused in opposition.

“Tightly focused” understates the point. Moroun interests spent massively to protect their very profitable Ambassador Bridge monopoly, which is completely owned by 84-year-old billionaire Manuel “Matty” Moroun. According to the nonprofit, nonpartisan Michigan Campaign Finance Network, Moroun sources contributed at least $565,000 to political campaigns in the 2010 election cycle, including 18 candidates who are now members of the state Senate.

The Detroit Free Press has reported that the Moroun family’s contributions included $9,700 to six of the seven members of the Senate Economic Development Committee. The report said that the only committee member who did not receive money from them was State Sen. Dave Hildenbrand, R-Lowell.

We cannot assume their spending stopped there. What political action committee contributions the Morouns made in the last 90 days won’t be known until the Secretary of State’s Office releases its next report. We won’t know how much was given to individual lawmaker campaigns until next Jan. 31, thanks to Michigan campaign disclosure laws.

So, members of the Senate Economic Development Committee made their votes on the bridge without the public having knowledge of who contributed what to whom recently.

The Ambassador Bridge company also spent something more than $5 million on a blitz of TV ads attacking the state bridge proposal. The ads have been widely criticized as inaccurate and untruthful, including being flagged for a “flagrant foul” by the Michigan Truth Squad.

I’ve asked around on whether Moroun interests also were in cahoots with the Tea Party in threatening primary opposition next year to Republicans who voted for the bridge. Nobody I talked with will say so on the record — but most say it’s likely.

The scope of spending by Moroun family interests in opposition to the New International Trade Crossing is unprecedented. And it’s quite clear that without spending millions, the lobbying campaign against the bridge would have failed.

Virtually every major actor outside the Legislature, from the automakers to Oakland County Executive Brooks Patterson, wants a new bridge. But the vast amount of money put against the bridge produced a distinct change in how our state’s political system worked.

And that, in turn, brings up the tricky question of what’s bribery and what’s not. Detroit Free Press columnist Brian Dickerson last Sunday made the point this way: “But I can’t for the life of me understand the practical difference between rigging the game with illegal bribes and rigging it with campaign contributions that are neither effectively regulated nor disclosed in a timely way, except that the former gets you a prison cell and the latter wins you grudging admiration for knowing how to cheat the way gentlemen do.”

I suspect this isn’t over, and the proposed new bridge will come back onto the table in months to come. Building it is just too important to the economic future of the state. The construction alone would generate thousands of jobs, while a modern bridge would be the linchpin of an international trade powerhouse centered on southeasternMichigan.

And if we care anything about ethics, the stage is now set for a thorough look at Michigan’s present bribery statutes and the ways we report political contributions. If anything reinforces deep and widespread public skepticism at the integrity of our political system, the whole disgusting and offensive bridge saga is it.

Editor’s note: Former newspaper publisher and University of Michigan Regent Phil Power is a longtime observer of Michigan politics and economics. He is also the founder and president of The Center for Michigan, a nonprofit, bipartisan centrist think-and-do tank, designed to cure Michigan’s dysfunctional political culture. He is also on the board of the Center’s Business Leaders for Early Education. The opinions expressed here are Power’s own and do not represent the official views of the Center.