By John Gallagher
Detroit Free Press Business Writer
When the Ambassador Bridge company set up a committee this month to oversee completion of the long-delayed Gateway project, it promised the committee would operate independently of the Moroun family that owns the bridge.
But at least two of the three members of the committee have close ties to the family, raising questions for some skeptics about how independent the committee can be.
One of the members is Dan Stamper, the longtime president of the Moroun family’s Detroit International Bridge Co., the owner and operator of the Ambassador Bridge. The other two members are Macomb County Treasurer Ted Wahby and former Michigan Department of Transportation Director Patrick Nowak.
Wahby’s campaign disclosure reports filed with the Macomb County Clerk’s Office show that he received $1,300 in campaign contributions from billionaire businessman Manuel (Matty) Moroun and his son, Matthew, in 2010 and 2011.
In addition, Wahby has served as a director of a Moroun-owned trucking firm, Universal Truckload Services.
Wahby, who has also headed the state’s transportation policy commission, told the Free Press in a telephone interview Thursday that his connections to the family would not interfere with the committee doing its job. That job, he said, is to carry out Wayne County Circuit Judge Prentis Edwards’ orders to complete Gateway as soon as possible.
“When the judge orders something we make sure it’s gets done,” Wahby said. “We’re not going to be negotiating with the Morouns. We’re going to be doing what the court tells us has got to be done.”
But Wayne County Commissioner Raymond Basham (D-Taylor), a longtime critic of the bridge company, said Wahby’s ties to the Morouns might be too close for independent action.
“Certainly, there’s an appearance of a conflict of interest,” Basham said Thursday.
MDOT, which has been locked in litigation with the DIBC over Gateway since 2009, took a wait-and-see attitude toward the new committee.
Jeff Cranson, a spokesman for MDOT, said in an e-mail Thursday, “The state looks forward to any action if it fulfills the court order enforcing the 2004 contract agreed to by the DIBC. Pat Nowak and Ted Wahby bring tremendous knowledge of transportation issues and a thoughtful approach that could help to ensure the DIBC meets the terms of the eight-year-old contract.”
Meanwhile, Edwards signaled this month that he’s keeping close watch on the Gateway project. He’s ordered both the bridge company and MDOT to give him detailed reports no later than March 7 on progress made to complete Gateway in time for a March 8 hearing.
Edwards has ordered both the elder Moroun and his son Matthew and bridge company president Stamper to appear in person before him on March 8.
Gateway is a $230-million project designed to ease border congestion by connecting the Ambassador Bridge directly to local interstates through a series of new ramps. MDOT sued DIBC in 2009 for not completing the project as designed. Judge Edwards ruled in MDOT’s favor in February 2010, and since then has jailed the elder Moroun and Stamper for civil contempt of court for not complying.
A Michigan Court of Appeals panel freed the men after a night in jail last month but said Edwards could send them back to jail if they do not comply with his orders. The new committee is an attempt by the bridge company to show the judge it is sincere in making moves to complete Gateway as ordered.