By Matt Helms and John Gallagher
Detroit Free Press Staff Writers
A Wayne County judge this morning ordered billionaire Manuel (Matty) Moroun and his chief deputy at the bridge, Dan Stamper, to jail until they are in compliance with his order to finish building ramps connecting the Ambassador Bridge to nearby expressways.
Lawyers sought stays of his order, but Circuit Judge Prentis Edwards denied the motion and others seeking the immediate release of the two men.
“It is clear,” Edwards said, that the Detroit International Bridge Co. “does not intend to comply with the court order” to finish work delayed by more than two years.
A lawyer said Moroun was never informed of what he did personally that would justify imprisoning an 84-year-old and called the decision an egregious violation of Moroun’s constitutional rights. The lawyers presented a letter they said showed Moroun and Stamper were resigning immediately from the board of the company that owns the bridge.
“Now that they have resigned they have nopower to do anything” associated with the bridge or the unfinished ramp work, defense lawyer Craig John argued.
Edwards cut John short.
Moroun’s lawyers sought to exclude him from the penalties, arguing he’s not the owner of the bridge, but rather is only affiliated with partnerships and trusts that do own it.
The dispute stems from the long-delayed Gateway project at the Ambassador Bridge. In planning since the 1990s, the Gateway project is meant to connect the Ambassador Bridge directly to I-75 and I-96 through a series of new ramps and roads so that truckers and other motorists can bypass local surface streets.
Under a 2004 contract with the Michigan Department of Transportation, both the Detroit International Bridge Co. and MDOT were to carry out distinct portions of the Gateway work. But MDOT sued in 2009 after its saw that the bridge company was not building its portion according to what MDOT said was the agreed-upon design. Instead, the company built a roadway that took traffic past the company’s lucrative duty-free store and fuel pumps, and that kept thousands of trucks bound for expressways on Fort and other local surface streets.
The Free Press reported last year that the duty-free fuel pumps alone could be worth millions of dollars a year in revenue to the bridge company.
Edwards ruled against the bridge company in February 2010, ordering the company to rebuild its portion of the project even if it meant ripping out the duty-free facilities. Since then, MDOT has told Edwards repeatedly that the bridge company was stalling. Edwards agreed, finding the company in contempt of court, and last January jailing DIBC President Dan Stamper for a few hours as a way to force compliance.
Since then, MDOT continued to argue that the bridge company was still not complying, even through the bridge company said it was proceeding as fast as it could with the reconstruction. Last November, Edwards again found the company in contempt of court and said he would impose penalties on Jan. 12. He ordered both Stamper and Moroun to appear in person for the penalty hearing, which to some observers raised the possibility that Edwards might jail one or both men.
In his contempt finding in November, Edwards ruled that there was “clear and unequivocal” evidence that the company had tried to evade his Feb. 1, 2010, order to complete Gateway as ordered.
Moroun smiled and shook hands as he walked into court this morning, wearing a dark blue suit and a red patterned tie.