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.
Jack Lessenberry, the longtime head of journalism at Wayne State University, can be heard on his podcast on YouTube via the Zing Media Network. He also is a winner of a National Emmy Award for a 1994 Frontline documentary on Dr. Jack Kevorkian, has served as The Toledo Blade’s writing coach and ombudsman and is now a columnist for and a consultant to both that newspaper and Block Communications, Inc. He is also the co-author of “The People’s Lawyer,” a biography of Frank Kelley, the nation’s longest-serving attorney general, and is working on a book on a pioneering newspaper family and race.