Morouns are ‘hostage takers,’ says diplomat

By Jack Lessenberry, Special to The Windsor Star

Manuel J. “Matty” Moroun is 85 years old and is worth, according to Forbes, at least $1.5 billion. But that’s evidently not enough. So he is attempting to buy the Michigan Constitution to preserve his monopoly over truck traffic over the Detroit River.

Make that, buy himself a personal amendment.

And if Michigan voters believe TV commercials he has spent millions to flood the airwaves with, he just might succeed.

Succeed, that is, in denying Michigan business a new bridge which business interests say they need, a bridge which would cost Michigan nothing, since Canada would assume all the costs and liabilities. The bridge would also create more than 10,000 new jobs, many high-paying and some of them permanent.

The new bridge, known as the New International Trade Crossing, would mean Washington would give Michigan $2.2 billion in badly needed federal highway matching funds.

It also would provide badly needed backup for the Ambassador Bridge, built in 1929 and which is increasingly showing signs of wear.

You would not know any of that, however, from any of the ads the Morouns – Matty, wife Nora, and son Matthew – have been running almost non-stop in most Detroit media markets. Independent analysts say these may just be the most false political ads that anyone can ever remember.

The Morouns don’t care about criticism; they want to persuade Michigan voters to vote yes on Proposal 6. This summer, the Moroun family paid $4.6 million to mainly out-of-state canvassers to collect signatures to put their amendment on the ballot.

Their campaign theme is “The People Should Decide,” and if approved, their amendment would require a statewide vote before Michigan could do so much as spend a dollar to sketch a new bridge on a legal pad. The entire goal is to make sure the Ambassador Bridge is the only game in town.

“You should believe nothing said in those ads, because none of what they say is true, none of it,” said Roy Norton, Canada’s consul general in Detroit.

Normally diplomats are unwilling to publicly attack anyone, much less a citizen of an allied country. But Norton says he has never seen anyone like the Morouns. “They say the New International Trade Crossing will cost the State of Michigan. Sometimes they say $2 billion. Lately they’ve been saying $8 billion. They say it will use Chinese steel. All lies.”

Independent observers who have analyzed the bridge deal, including the Center for Michigan and the Citizens’ Research Council all have concluded Canada’s consul general is correct.

The Canadian government feels a new bridge is so important they will provide the estimated $550 million the job would cost Michigan. The state would then eventually repay Canada out of its share of toll revenues.

Gov. Rick Snyder announced a new bridge would be a priority soon after taking office at the start of last year. The new governor then turned to the legislature for approval – only to find that the Morouns have heavily contributed to the campaigns and pet causes of virtually every key committee chair. The governor ended up not even being able to get the lawmakers to hold a vote on a new bridge.

Frustrated, he used a little-known clause in the state constitution, and signed an “inter-local agreement” with Canada to build the new bridge about two miles south of the Ambassador Bridge. The site was chosen because it would allow trucks to move swiftly between Canadian and American freeways. Incensed, the Morouns launched their campaign to stop future bridges.

Both the governor and Canadian officials say they intend to build the New International Trade Crossing even if Proposal 6 passes. They contend it can’t apply to a bridge already in the works. But in an interview, Norton conceded passing the amendment was virtually certain to lead to court battles and delays.

He is also peeved that U.S. business interests haven’t spent more to counter Moroun’s lavish propaganda campaign. The Ambassador Bridge’s owners have personally spent $31.3 million of their own money on their current campaign. Opponents have cobbled together barely $1 million.

Canada’s consul general thinks it would be hard to overstate the issue’s importance. “The Morouns, you see, are hostage takers,” he told an audience at Central Michigan University Oct. 29.

“They’re quite prepared to take hostage the employment prospects of workers who produce 25 per cent of the world’s largest two-way trade relationship, and maximize their monopoly profits for as long as they can. Then, when their bridge is no longer functional, it will be a catastrophic problem for everyone else.”

Jack Lessenberry writes about people and issues in Michigan.