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Jack Lessenberry

Jack Lessenberry

Moroun’s Jailing
an Educational Event

January 20, 2012

DETROIT — Gregg Ward took a day off from his job running a truck ferry across the Detroit River last week to take his daughter Emily to court, so they could see what happened to Matty Moroun.

Moroun is the 84-year-old man who owns the Ambassador Bridge, the only one across the Detroit River. That aged bridge is the only way there now for more than a billion dollars a week of cargo to easily move between the United States and Canada.

Moroun has been fighting hard — and some say dirty — spending millions to get the Michigan Legislature to prevent a second, internationally owned bridge from being built.

Gov. Rick Snyder, the auto industry, and every chamber of commerce in the state want a new bridge. Ward and his father, John, aren’t neutral in this battle either.

If they were concerned only with their own pocketbooks, they would almost certainly be supporting Moroun. That’s because they make a living operating something called the Detroit-Windsor Truck Ferry.

The federal government doesn’t allow vehicles carrying certain categories of “hazmat” to cross the 1929-era Ambassador Bridge. That includes flammable or corrosive cargos, or anything that is explosive or radioactive. Nor can those things — or any heavy freight — be moved through the Detroit-Windsor tunnel.

So the Wards’ ferry transports trucks with hazmat, moving, on average, 50 or so trucks a day, charging $115 a truck. True, the trucks could drive to Port Huron and cross there; the Blue Water Bridge is safe for such kinds of potentially dangerous materials. However, that’s not cost-efficient. The time, tolls and gas cost more than the ferry service. So the Wards make a modest living.

But if the New International Trade Crossing gets built, it might put them out of business, since any new bridge more than likely will be certified safe for hazardous materials as well.

Yet Gregg Ward has fought for years for a new bridge. He thinks the idea that a single man being allowed to control the most economically important border crossing between the U.S, and Canada is crazy — and that something must be done to end Moroun’s stranglehold on moving freight across the Detroit River.

He knows that the Ambassador Bridge is nearing the end of its useful life, and that if something happened to it, Michigan and Ontario could well be thrown into something like a major depression.

“I’m making this fight for her generation,” the 50-year-old ferry operator said, indicating his daughter.

That fight has taken a toll on Ward, a newly divorced father of two kids he adores, including a son who is severely autistic.

For Emily, a high school junior who is thinking about becoming a journalist, spending a morning in Wayne County Circuit Court was well worth missing a day of school. To her delight and her father’s stunned disbelief, Moroun became the only billionaire in history to spend a night in Detroit’s raucous and crowded county jail.

Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Prentis Edwards sent him there, but not for anything connected with his attempts to stop a new bridge. Two years ago, the judge ordered Moroun to live up to an agreement his company had signed in 2004 with the Michigan Department of Transportation, known as MDOT.

This was to build a development to ease congestion around the Ambassador Bridge, known as the Gateway project. There was no mystery about what was supposed to happen. But MDOT ended up suing Moroun for ignoring the agreement.

Two years ago, the judge found that the bridge owner closed a street that was supposed to stay open, and improperly installed some new gas pumps and a duty-free shop. Traffic was rerouted by these, so drivers would stop and spend money, with the profits going to Moroun.

The Gateway plan also indicated the Ambassador Bridge Co. should have built an elevated two-lane ramp for heavy trucks heading to the bridge. But he never did this and trucks are still backed up on a nearby street.

Back in February 2010, Judge Edwards ordered Moroun’s company, the Detroit International Bridge Co, to tear down the improper construction and build the project as agreed. Nothing happened. A year ago he repeated the order and briefly jailed Dan Stamper, who runs the company for Moroun.

Nothing happened again, and this year an exasperated judge ordered both men jailed till the work was completed.

The pair spent only one night in a cell before they were released by the Michigan Court of Appeals, but they could be returning to jail, depending on the outcome of a February 2 hearing.

Gregg Ward wasn’t pleased they let Moroun and his sidekick out so quickly, or that they were allowed to have food brought in from a fancy club. But he is optimistic about what happens next.

“I think this really weakens Moroun’s credibility,” he said. “He’s shown an inability to cooperate with the government, an inability to follow rules.”

He notes that in an attempt to avoid jail, Moroun claimed not to really own the bridge. That was a blunder, Ward said. “He claimed that he didn’t really own the bridge. Well, then who does? This should enable the court to question him about that. The secrets of the Moroun empire may begin to unravel.”

Whatever happens, Ward plans to be in court February 2. And if she is allowed to again miss school, Emily will be, too. What was really fascinating, she said, was “to see how justice would prevail.”

Veteran journalist and national Emmy Award winner Jack Lessenberry teaches at Wayne State University, serves as Michigan Radio’s senior political analyst and writes regularly for several publications. He also serves as The Toledo Blade’s writing coach and ombudsman and is host of the weekly television show Deadline Now on WGTE-TV in Toledo.

January 19, 2012 · Filed under Jack Lessenberry Tags: , , , ,

14 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Anagnorisis // Jan 20, 2012 at 6:10 am

    The beat goes on. It can handily be extrapolated that an aristocratic oligarchic autocracy is in play at the Detroit River bridge, one man essentially holding his bridge as ransom, fending off entire democracies on both sides of the river. The Michigan Court of Appeals may have some collusion in this standoff, inasmuch as the adage “follow the money” attests, usually not without some veracity. This is a perspicuous vantage point of interest considering the seeming contradiction of the ferry contractor undermining his own business. The illogic of one individual owning the connection between countries will have to be dealt with ultimately. Some version of “eminent domain” will prevail. Contempt of court however will likely not apply against such power and money since clearly one judge cannot withstand the many others who may have vested interests in the imbroglio.

  • 2 Fiona Lowther // Jan 20, 2012 at 9:35 am

    Anagnorisis seems to always hit the nail on the head. However, Moroun is not holding his bridge as ransom, but rather as leverage. Moroun is holding the economies of Michigan and Ontario as ransom.
    It would be interesting to know which, if any, of the Appeals Court judges Moroun has contributed to. And whose campaigns is he contributing to now?
    As some wise man once said: Follow the money.

  • 3 Who pays Dome? // Jan 20, 2012 at 10:03 am

    Jack has lost all of what credibility he had left over how he has approached this issue of a new bridge. A veteran from a day gone past where journalists did in depth study and let the information create the slant rather than the slant choose the information, he has become nothing more than a public relations writer who spurts out whatever talking points he has been given by the latest person who told him how influential he is. When will he do a story on why Maroun should not have been jailed? I’m not saying Maroun is a nice guy. I can even see why Jack doesn’t like him. But just because he doesn’t like him doesn’t mean he should be jailed because his company didn’t build an overpass over a street that no longer exists. These are the type of non-sensical bureaucratic madates that Snyder said we should be getting rid of, like requirements to keep the toilet seats down on outhouses. But now we’re going to make someone pay to build an overpass over a road that no longer exists but for which the city of Detroit won’t decertify because they don’t like Maroun. But those are facts and Dome will quickly lose my interest if all it is is a PR internet outlet for stories that aren’t worthy of print. At least throw it in some equal balance, I think the Free Press even recanted that they were wrong on parts of their story. Here are some ideas: do a new story on how their is no unique agreement with the feds on the bridge. Ask for a copy of it. Can you get one? When is it dated? Does it even mention the bridge? Do you even care enough to look into it? If not, do a story on what an availability payment / subsidy is. Do a story on how “no MI tax dollars” still means “federal tax dollars”, which last I checked all Michiganders still pay for. Do a story how the Big three want to outsource the downside costs of a “just in time” delivery system onto taxpayers, but they try to spin it that it will decrease the cost of cars in an unsubstantiated way. Do a story on how the $550 million canadian “promise” is nothing, and has no appropriations in Canada, and how Canadian promises to pay “availability payments” means nothing because the most they will promise is $550 million and that money is already accounted for. Do a story on how previous DRIC legislation would have authorized the selling of MI highways to foreign banks and the tolling of anything in the state. Do a story on how the major investor in all this will be a Canadian pension fund with guaranteed 10% profits. Do a story on how all of the details of how the bridge authority is set up, and what powers it has, is determined only after the legislature passes a law that in essence says “they give up all authority over this issue in any way going forward”. Do a story on how much Blanchard gets paid for all this, or how one of Dome Magazines major advertisers is Tom Shield’s Marketing Resource Group. Ask him who pays him, and how much he is paid. Do some research on how much money groups pushing the DRIC dump into advertising for the Dome, and then do a comparison on how many pro-DRIC stories or anti-DRIC stories get written here. Then do a story on how none of this matters because hey, who likes Maroun?

  • 4 Bridge User // Jan 20, 2012 at 1:14 pm

    I’m curious to know who is paying “Who pays Dome?” Sure seems like an awful lot of vitriol . . . why the hate?

  • 5 Editor // Jan 21, 2012 at 11:18 pm

    Dome’s very modest revenues come entirely from the advertisers and sponsors you see on the pages. Columnists, such as Jack Lessenberry, are writing their own opinions, based on their own research. Readers, such as “Who pays Dome?” above, are welcome and encouraged to state their supporting or contrary opinions. That makes for a fuller experience for the reader.

  • 6 Fiona Lowther // Jan 22, 2012 at 9:24 am

    From following Jack Lessenberry’s writings in many publications over many years, it is more than obvious that he knows much more about the Moroun situation than “Who pays Dome” thinks he knows. The Windsor Star’s Dave Battagello, Metro Times’ Curt Guyette and Jack Lessenberry and former Free Press reporter and author/blogger Joel Thurtell have done more investigating than most readers could imagine in bringing Moroun’s dealings, nefarious and otherwise, to the public eye. Moroun has gotten away with figurative murder for decades; he and Stamper were jailed simply because they ignored a court order. If you or I or John or Mary Doe had ignored a court order, we would still be in jail. Because Moroun can afford some of the country’s top lawyers, he and Stamper are out on a technicality. And speaking pejoratively of public relations writers, what about the PR whizzes that Moroun has hired — including the sleaziest of them all, Dick Morris. People who lives in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.
    BTW, speaking of asking for copies of documents, how about publicizing the Master Concession Agreement that Moroun euchred through under the Kilpatrick “administration.” That agreement effectively gives Matty control over the Port of Detroit – and any and all monies that come into it. Ladies and gentlemen, if you think the current situation is a fine kettle of fish, just wait until the details start coming out about the Master Concession Agreement. That’s a real can of worms — giving Moroun the power to take it all. The Detroit/Wayne County Port Authority is being held hostage to one man’s unsurpassed greed. Too bad he can’t take it all with him when he goes.
    And yes, nobody but one of Moroun’s vested-interest underlings would be doing such convoluted and erroneous carping. Where the rest of us care about Detroit, Windsor, the environment, the economy, and the health of those in the vicinity of the Ambassador Bridge, the Morounlings operate in lockstep like Matty-robots, making sure to obfuscate, mislead and confuse the issue — and hey, what’s a little white lie (or some big dark ones) among friends? Who Pays Dome? had better make arrangements for some other income or quid pro quo when Matty is no longer around.

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