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Jack Lessenberry

Jack Lessenberry

Bridge Blockade

February 3, 2012

DETROIT — Americans are justifiably outraged whenever a lawmaker is caught taking bribes or misusing public funds. Think Kwame Kilpatrick, for example.

But what do you suppose the voters’ reaction would be if it were discovered that one very rich family was trying to buy off the legislature solely for their own financial gain? What if that family spent a small fortune on what amounted to legalized bribes to successfully block a project that virtually every corporation in the state agreed was essential to Michigan’s economic future?

This would be a project that would create thousands of jobs, win the state billions in federal highway grants, and wouldn’t cost taxpayers a cent. But lawmakers killed the project because the rich family showered them with money.

Wouldn’t you expect massive outrage?

Well, guess what. That’s exactly what’s going on in Michigan. The latest proof arrived this week, when the latest round of delayed campaign finance reports became public.

But sadly, there seems to be little reaction — in part because the rich family has also spent millions on blatantly false TV and radio commercials and direct mailings meant to mislead the public.

We are talking about the family of Manuel J. “Matty” Moroun, the 84-year-old billionaire who owns the aging Ambassador Bridge.

Governor Rick Snyder has made it a top priority to build a second bridge a couple of miles south, known as the New International Trade Crossing. Every other living former governor supports a new bridge.

So do most other politicians, the CEOs of Ford, Chrysler and General Motors, and virtually every chamber of commerce in the state. Republicans in the Ohio Senate voted unanimously on support of a new bridge. The government of Canada wants this bridge so much it has agreed to pick up Michigan’s share of the costs, which the state could repay years from now out of its share of the tolls. Washington clearly favors the new bridge.

Astonishingly, the Obama administration has said that Michigan could count the $550 million Canada is willing to pay for Michigan’s share as matching federal highway funds. That would mean $2.2 billion to fix Michigan roads, no strings attached.

But the governor hasn’t even been able to get a vote on his bridge in the legislature, and here’s why. The Moroun family has contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars, possibly millions, to state legislators who have done his bidding and blocked the bill.

This became apparent this week, thanks to incomplete, but just released campaign finance records. They show, for example, that Matty Moroun, his wife Nora, and his son and daughter-in-law gave at least $242,000 to various state-related political funds.

On the key Senate committee considering the bridge last year, only two of the seven lawmakers didn’t receive campaign contributions from the Morouns in the 2010-11 period: David Hildenbrand (R-Lowell) and Tupac Hunter (D-Detroit). Direct contributions to the other five ranged from totals of $500 to $4,000. Sen. Mike Kowall (R-White Lake), the committee chair who was instrumental in preventing a bill backing the bridge from reaching the Senate floor, received a total of $1,000 in 2011.

Not all of the Moroun money was direct contributions to legislators’ campaign committees. For example, the Morouns also channeled resources to Kowall’s campaign fund in other ways, according to Rich Robinson, who runs the nonpartisan, nonprofit Michigan Campaign Finance Network. Campaign finance records show that Moroun and members of his family gave a total of $50,000 to an organization called Knights of the Round Table in 2010. The Round Table gave $12,000 to the North Oakland Political Action Committee in 2011. The Morouns also gave $4,000 directly to the North Oakland PAC. The North Oakland PAC gave a total of $6,144 in in-kind goods and services to Friends of Mike Kowall in 2011 and $3,144 in in-kind goods and services to Friends of Eileen Kowall the same year.

“The North Oakland PAC was being used as a vehicle to get goods and services to the Kowalls’ campaigns,” said Robinson, who spends a lot of time analyzing campaign finance reports. Kowall’s wife, Eileen, is a state representative who also opposes the bridge.

You might think the Michigan Republican Party would have joined its governor and the state’s business interests in backing the bridge. But they haven’t. This week we may have learned why. The Morouns gave $100,000 to the Michigan GOP last year.

They also gave $20,000 to help real estate developer Bobby Schostak’s successful drive to be appointed state party chair.

The total amount of money the Morouns gave to politicians is fairly amazing, given that last year wasn’t an election year. In addition to the money spent at the state level, the family gave more than $368,000 to federal campaign committees in 2011.

Nor is that figure complete. Some state legislators haven’t yet filed their annual reports. The Morouns, whose wealth is conservatively valued at $1.5 billion by Forbes, also are known to be big givers to political action committees. But donations given to PACs late last year aren’t required to be reported till April.

They are also reliably reported to be donating to campaigns now — but as Michigan law stands, we won’t know to whom and how much for months. Robinson thinks this is outrageous. The legislature could easily enact laws making campaign finance reporting more timely and far more transparent.

But lawmakers seem to have little interest in that.

Beyond the shadow of a doubt, what is happening is that an 84-year-old billionaire with a monopoly over America’s most economically important trade crossing is trying to buy our government to further his family’s own financial interest.

Independent observers agree that stopping the construction of a new bridge has cost the state jobs and billions of dollars, and has, in the words of Canadian Consul General Roy Norton, put this region’s economic future in jeopardy.

Actually, they’ve done more than try. “I’d have to say, so far, they have succeeded,” Robinson said.

Yet Gov. Snyder still vows to get the bridge built. Whether he can overcome the Morouns remains to be seen.

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.

February 2, 2012 · Filed under Jack Lessenberry Tags: , , ,

42 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Anagnorisis // Feb 3, 2012 at 7:34 am

    That certainly spells it out clearly: the Maroun family is holding the state, the country and another country at bay over the hostage of one crumbling bridge and contiguous surroundings. What about eminent domain, manifest destiny, emergency intervention as leverage points? Are we that helpless as the future of commerce ebbs away? I should think that the president and governor would expedite this need that is essentially already in receipt of front money to build; do they not have such emergency powers? The Ambassafor Bridge is not going to get any younger. One collapse and international traffic is impeded at huge cost, plus the owner is out his daily fare tolls. This is an instance of incompetence due to process and of course campaign moneys. It’s disgraceful and disreputable yet it drags on. There may be more behind the scenes we’re not being told yet, much like the Iraq attack, bank deregulation, wealthy tax break results, energy research &c. Stalling on infrastructural fix is like reneging on car repairs: it builds up to a breakdown of total demise beyond cost benefit ratio. It’s looming.

  • 2 MomentofTruth // Feb 3, 2012 at 10:12 am

    Lessenberry, unwittingly, refutes his premise that the Morouns’ have “bought” the legislature.

    Lessenberry cites all the various interest groups that supported Senate Bill 420 — “the CEOs of Ford, Chrysler and General Motors, and virtually every chamber of commerce in the state,” as he writes it.

    I’d add that virtually every labor group supported Senate Bill 420, as well.

    And, guess what? All of these groups contribute to politicians, just as the Morouns do.

    I’d be willing to wager that if Lessenberry got down from his high horse for a moment and did a REAL analysis of campaign contributions, he’d find that pro-bridge contributions to legislators swap the Morouns’ anti-bridge contributions by probably 100 to 1.

    But, of course, that story wouldn’t have a boogeyman and would be infinitely less interesting than Lessenberry’s vilification of the Morouns and his smearing of members of the legislature.

    Lessenberry’s hack job is pretty standard fare for what passes for journalism nowadays: conclusion first, then tailor the facts as needed.

  • 3 Outrage is there // Feb 3, 2012 at 10:39 am

    Americans are justifiably outraged whenever a veteran print journalist is caught not only not covering wrongful JAILINGS but is instead writing slanted stories to provide public relations cover for crony judicial decisions that wrongfully JAIL people. I’m supposed to be outraged that Maroun gave $500 to some Lansing critter (like thousands of other people do every year), but not get upset about wrongful JAILING? People are outraged when Obama announces that we can now jail people indefinitely. People are outraged that the media is not covering the loss of their liberties more, and outraged that in coverage of this issue that the fact that other judges have criticized the tactics in the Maroun jailing, saying the judge did not even give him an objective path to freedom, let alone if he was the appropriate party to get JAILED. Yes, the outrage grows when you learn that same judge was a recent Snyder appointee. Yes, the outrage is there when you learn Canada offers $550 million to try to induced our Michigan laws, and that a former Governor (Blanchard, former Ambassador to Canada) is getting paid more money to push all of this then most people have in personal net worth. And then you find out this is all being done so that a foreign bank or a Canadian pension fund can own the profits of the bridge instead of Maroun? He’s getting JAILED for that? Don’t worry Jack, the outrage is there.

  • 4 goods // Feb 3, 2012 at 11:03 am

    I am outraged that the Morouns DID NOT stay in jail until they fulfilled their contract obligations. Yes, THEY SHOULD STAY IN JAIL! When money buys influence above what the average person would get, it is an insult to the rest of us including the bought rantings of the previous post. How much did Moroun pay you to insert your mindless rant? Whatever he paid you, you sold yourself self respect cheap. Mine is not for sale at any price!

  • 5 David Waymire // Feb 3, 2012 at 1:40 pm

    Moment, you are unlearned in the ways of Lansing. Only one group makes the bridge its continual number one interest — Manny and his boys. The others your mention have many issues, and the lawmakers know they can play those off against each other. But Manny…if they turn on him, the faucet will be shut off permanently. And Mr. Outrage, Manny should still be in jail. That’s how our system works: The judge tells you want to do; you defy, you are in contempt. These guys are proof positive that power — not justice — rules in our nation today.

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