Vander Doelen: Moroun loses the big one

By Chris Vander Doelen, The Windsor Star

Ambassador Bridge owner Matty Moroun has waged a relentless legal war against his enemies for nearly four decades, winning enough to get his own way most of the time.

But the long, long war may have finally come to an end in two Detroit courtrooms this week. Moroun & Co. have lost the Big One – his most important case, and possibly his last appeal. The family has even lost control of how their own bridge plaza will be rebuilt.

So, could there possibly be a better time to give the go-ahead for construction of a new international bridge between Windsor and Detroit?

Brace yourselves for a bridge announcement of some kind in the next two or three weeks, that’s my guess.

According to numerous official reports and rumors, a green-light announcement from Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder to build a new bridge to Canada is imminent. The trouble is, the big day has been “imminent” for months.

Any day, now, insiders have been muttering since just before Christmas. Wait for it. A-a-a-a-ny second and it’s going to happen. And then – nothing.

First they were waiting for the Ambassador Bridge’s appearance before Judge Prentis Edwards on Jan. 12. That was the day the judge shocked two nations by throwing billionaire Moroun and right-hand man Dan Stamper in jail. Briefly.

Then they were waiting for the Michigan Court of Appeal to rule on the legality of Edwards’ tough rulings. Moroun lost again, big time. “The appeals court gave (Edwards) permission to do what he did this week,” says Windsor Mayor Eddie Francis, who’s been following the legal twists and turns closely.

After the appeal they were supposedly waiting for the Republican primaries to finish in Michigan. Proponents of building a new, publicly owned crossing between Windsor and Detroit didn’t want their billion-dollar baby sucked down into the bottomless political bog known as the GOP.

OK, so that’s over with. And now the Morouns (son Matthew and wife Nora also have ownership positions in the Ambassador Bridge) have lost yet another court appearance and have had yet another appeal thrown out of court. Their legal options appear to be played out.

I had to feel mildly sorry for the elder Moroun this week, seeing the old guy looking so tired and beaten at his court appearance. There is nothing wrong with being rich, or having an empire. I admire him for that.

But the Morouns have clearly been wrong to block competition from a second bridge that would benefit the economic lives of tens of millions of people in Canada and the U.S. And they’ve been terrible bullies while doing so, suing everyone in sight and greasing politicians with donations worth millions over the years.

So my empathy was about an inch deep.

Now, let’s build the new one. What’s holding us up?

According to the Gongwer Political Report, out of Lansing, Mich., “intense lawyering” on both sides of the border has been delaying the announcement of the New International Trade Crossing, as the Americans call the project.

“A lawsuit from the owners of the Ambassador Bridge, who fiercely oppose the NITC, is guaranteed … With a lawsuit certain, attorneys are doing everything they can to make sure the eventual action holds up in court.”

But that was before the Morouns’ twin legal losses this week, which makes the case for building the NITC much safer. Gongwer went on:

“The lawyering from the Canadian side is especially meticulous, and understandably so, given that it is putting up the $550 million to cover Michigan’s costs for the bridge.”

That doesn’t quite match what I’ve been hearing on the Canadian side of the border.

First of all, no money will actually change hands. Canada won’t write any checks.

Ottawa merely has to guarantee Michigan’s $550 million share on paper.

Canada will be paid back for this by collecting the tolls from both sides for a few decades, until the debt is paid off. (They did us the same favor on the Sarnia crossing years ago.) After that Michigan will own its half, as it should.

The lawyering is all done on this side, I’m told. Canada is ready to go. We’re just waiting for Gov. Snyder to make his move.

He’s had a few other things on his plate, such as saving Detroit from the abyss. But he’ll get around to our joint project before too long. A spring ribbon-cutting would be great.