Billionaire Detroit bridge owner to stay in jail

9:39 PM, Jan 12, 2012   |    comments
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Video: Billionaire Detroit bridge owner to stay in jail

Matty Moroun being led to jail in Wayne County Circuit Court. (Courtesy: Andre J. Jackson/Detroit Free Press)

DETROIT (Det. Free Press) -- A three-judge panel of the Michigan Court of Appeals Thursday evening denied 84-year-old billionaire Manuel (Matty) Moroun's and his top aide's request for release from jail pending appeal.

That means the Ambassador Bridge owner and president, sent to jail Thursday morning by a Wayne County judge until they comply with his order to finish Gateway project ramps, will stay in jail at least until the appeals court hears further arguments.

It was not clear when they will occur.

It was the latest development in a stunning day that saw Wayne County Sheriff's deputies leading Moroun and Dan Stamper out of the courtroom Thursday morning. Circuit Judge Prentis Edwards denied motions from their lawyers seeking to delay the jailing pending appeal.

In an hour-long hearing of high drama in a packed courtroom, attorneys for the pair offered multiple arguments to keep the men out of jail. They said the men had resigned their positions with the Detroit International Bridge Co. and so were no longer able to control what happened in the dispute. An attorney for Stamper flourished a paper that he said was Stamper's resignation letter and laid it before the judge.

The lawyers also argued that jailing violated the constitutional rights of Moroun and Stamper. After Edwards rejected all their arguments and deputies led the men away, attorneys for the pair left immediately for the Michigan Court of Appeals to file appeals, hoping to win release for Moroun and Stamper before the end of the day.

Moroun had entered the courtroom smiling and greeting his associates, but appeared shocked and stunned after Edwards ordered him jailed.

A woman sitting in the courtroom broke into applause after Edwards ordered the men jailed. Outside the courtroom later, she identified herself as Deb Sumner, a resident of southwest Detroit. "Justice prevails," she told reporters. "I'm not shocked at all."

Moroun's son later released a statement condemning his father's jailing, calling it "excessive, unwarranted and outrageous." He added, "This entire legal process has clearly become a personal vendetta by the judge against these individuals."

The jailing culminates years of litigation and efforts by the Michigan Department of Transportation to get the Moroun family's Detroit International Bridge Co. to build its portion of the Gateway project at the Ambassador Bridge as agreed in a 2004 contract.

Gateway is a $230-million joint effort by MDOT and the bridge company to ease border crossings by connecting the Ambassador Bridge directly to I-75 and I-96 through a series of new ramps and roads. Gateway would allow truckers and other motorists to bypass local surface streets in southwest Detroit.

MDOT sued the bridge company in 2009 after its saw that DIBC 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 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.

Thursday morning, various attorneys for Moroun and his company argued first that Moroun was not the owner of DIBC, as MDOT contended, but was instead a minority shareholder through a series of family trusts and partnerships.

"Now that they have resigned they have no power to do anything" associated with the bridge or the unfinished ramp work, defense lawyer Craig John argued.

Robert Mol, an assistant attorney general representing MDOT, countered that Moroun exercised total control over the company as a director and shareholder, and Edwards agreed.

"Mr. Moroun has the power and the authority," Edwards said.

John also argued that Edwards and MDOT have set up "a moving goal line" throughout proceedings so that it has not been clear exactly what specifications the bridge company should follow to avoid contempt. But the judge rejected that argument, too.

Edwards said he had considered what penalty would get Gateway completed the soonest. He said he considered but rejected the idea of appointing a receiver to take over the project from the bridge company. That would "only result in further delays," Edwards said. He also noted that financial penalties for civic contempt of court were limited to $7,500. He levied that fine but said it was not enough to win compliance.

Only the bridge company itself has the power, resources and knowledge to comply with the order, Edwards said.

In jailing Moroun and Stamper, Edwards said their failure to comply "has impaired the effectiveness and authority of the court" and" has disregarded the rights of the members of the public."

The company, Edwards said, has had almost two years to comply with his February 2010 order to rebuild but "has simply chosen to ignore its obligation... and ignore the court order."

Edwards said he would keep the men in jail until either they complied with his order or were no longer in a position to comply. But there remained a question of how much new construction activity must take place to satisfy the judge.

Michigan Department of Transportation Chief Operating Officer Greg Johnson said it would take at minimum a year to complete ramps, lanes and other unfinished elements of the project if the company cooperated fully. Charles Scales, a court-appointed monitor overseeing the project for Edwards, estimated outside the courtroom that it might take six to nine months to complete the work.

"We take no joy or satisfaction in seeing these men incarcerated," MDOT's Johnson said, adding, the state only wants to see the project completed.

The construction schedule could be sped up, but that would cost additional money, and MDOT doesn't have the authority to order the bridge company to "do X, Y and Z," Johnson said.

"We know that it's going to take cooperation between their organization and MDOT to finish this thing in a timely manner," Johnson said. "Cooperation is the key rather than throwing money at it."

By John Gallagher and Matt Helms, Detroit Free Press Staff Writers

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