News Hits can't say with certainty exactly who is guilty of what, but we can say with a high degree of certainty that a distinctly odious smell was unleashed when we opened up a motion the Detroit International Bridge Company filed with the Wayne County Circuit Court last week.
Every media outlet in town has reported how the company — controlled by the family of Grosse Pointe billionaire Manuel "Matty" Moroun — agreed to finally abide by the orders of Circuit Court Judge Prentis Edwards and build its share of the southwest Detroit Gateway Project according to the terms of a contract it has with the Michigan Department of Transportation.
The company still maintains that the contract doesn't clearly spell out what must be done, and that it will appeal Edwards' decision in the hopes that the state will eventually have to cough up a lot of cash. But, in the meantime, the DIBC claims that it will do exactly what the judge and MDOT say it has to do.
Had they not, Matty, chairman of the bridge company's board of directors, and bridge company President Dan Stamper ran the distinct risk of being sent back to jail for contempt. Edwards had already sent the two men to the slammer last month. They spent about 30 hours behind bars, then were released while the Court of Appeals agreed to consider the issue. When the higher court confirmed the right of Edwards to use jail as a way to coerce the company into obeying his orders, it seemed the DIBC honchos were out of options: Either do what the judge says, or be prepared to don an orange jumpsuit.
Like we said, all that has been well-covered.
Also covered were statements by assistant attorney general Robert Mol, representing MDOT, who urged Edwards to reject the bridge company's motion to disqualify himself; Mol said the allegations in the motion lacked both merit and proof of Edwards having done anything to warrant disqualification. Edwards agreed and decided to stay on the case.
What we haven't seen exposed elsewhere, though, were details of allegations contained in that motion. Part of the reason it didn't get covered is that the bridge company's team of lawyers declined the opportunity to say in open court what they claimed on paper.
And this is where we get to the really smelly part.
In essence, Gov. Rick Snyder, Judge Edwards and Charles Scales — an engineer and attorney appointed by Edwards to monitor the bridge company's progress in completing the work ordered by the court — are accused of participating in what amounts to a conspiracy designed to get the bridge company to back off its opposition to construction of a publicly owned bridge linking Windsor to the Delray area of Detroit.
Snyder wants the new bridge. Edwards wanted to see his son, Prentis Edwards Jr., appointed by Snyder to a vacant seat on the 36th District Court. Put the two pieces together and you get an allegation based on conjecture.
Snyder's office flatly denies trying to influence the outcome of the case. Said his spokeswoman Sara Wurfel: "I hate to even dignify more of the same ridiculous claims of the Morouns and their multimillion-dollar campaign of misinformation, mistruths and distortion." She added that Snyder has played "no role whatsoever" in the Gateway case.
Which brings us to the truly disturbing part of what's contained in the motion:
Attorneys for the bridge company allege that in June 2011 monitor Scales contacted attorney Reginald Turner, who had recently been brought on board as part of the DIBC legal team, and asked that they meet in private. Turner agreed. At that meeting, held at Detroit's Book-Cadillac Hotel, Scales allegedly told Turner that Judge Edwards would keep ruling against the bridge company as long as the company opposed construction of a new, publicly owned bridge that would provide competition to the privately owned Ambassador Bridge.
In addition, monitor Scales allegedly said that if the company cooperated, it would be granted the right to run a lucrative duty-free shop on the U.S. side of the new bridge.
According to the filing:
"Mr. Turner left that meeting very troubled, and believed the Monitor Scales had been sent to convey to DIBC that it had no choice but to withdraw its opposition to Governor Snyder's proposed NITC [New International Trade Crossing] Bridge if DIBC wanted any relief in this case from Judge Edwards or cooperation from MDOT. Monitor Scales, who is an attorney, would have known that Mr. Turner was required to convey that message to his client, DIBC. The nature of the threat was unambiguous, and can be attributed to Judge Edwards since Mr. Scales serves as the Court's Monitor."
Scales provided News Hits with a radically different account of events.
For starters, he said, it was Turner who asked that the two meet, and not the other way around, as is claimed in the court filing.
The two men, said Scales, are long-time personal friends. As Turner was just coming on board as part of the bridge company's legal team, he wanted to get Scales' candid perspective on the case. Scales agreed to an "off the record" chat with his friend over drinks, with the understanding that any information shared would remain between just the two of them.
"I wasn't there to relay any messages from the judge, the governor or any other party," said Scales. "It was a meeting between friends, having an informal conversation."
One thing Scales said he did tell Turner is this: It would be in the company's best interests to comply with the judge's orders.
He saids he also suggested that the company "think outside the box" in order to break up the logjam existing between the company and MDOT, and that one way for that to occur would be for the company to use its opposition to the NITC bridge as a bargaining chip.
Scales said he has no recollection of the duty-free shop coming up in the conversation.
Asked if he thought the allegations were an act of desperation on the part of the bridge company, Scales declined to answer.
What he did say about claims that he initiated the meeting, and that he was there both to deliver a threat as well as promises of a reward if the company backed off opposition to the publicly owned bridge, is this:
"I'm deeply saddened and very disappointed these allegations were made. They are not true."
Reached by phone last week, Turner didn't want to talk. Curiously, he did say he wasn't aware of what exactly was being claimed in the court filing — even though he's among the bridge company lawyers named on the document's lead page. It was another lawyer who signed a sworn affidavit attesting to the truth of allegations being made.
Otherwise, Turner referred questions to Godfrey Dillard, the bridge company's new lead attorney on the case. We contacted him by e-mail, but he just directed us back to Turner.
We tried Turner again on Monday, sending him an e-mail pointing out that, according to the Michigan Rules of Professional Conduct governing lawyers, if an attorney has knowledge that another lawyer or judge has committed a serious ethical violation, the incident has to be reported to either the Attorney Grievance Commission or (in the case of judges) to the Judicial Tenure Commission.
The only exception is privileged information exchanged between an attorney and his client.
So, we asked Turner, did these so-called threats allegedly made by Scales on behalf of Judge Edwards ever get reported to either of those bodies?
He provided what we can only describe as a cryptic reply:
"There is no sworn testimony cited in the disqualification motion to support the allegations therein regarding Attorney Scales implicating Judge Prentis Edwards, Sr., and/or his son, Judge Prentis Edwards, Jr."
And then he added: "Today I formally withdrew as counsel for DIBC."
This is serious. The professional reputations of both Edwards and Scales have been called into question in a document that is now a matter of public record.
If Turner and other lawyers for the bridge company were aware of anything that smacked of ethical violations on the part of the two, they were duty-bound to report them.
Remember, the alleged shakedown reportedly occurred more than six months ago.
For what it's worth, we are more inclined to believe the version of events offered by Scales.
The notion that Edwards and the governor would sit down and work out a deal this shady, and then bring in Scales to be a part of a scheme that relies on what appears to be extortion and bribery in order to compel the bridge company to give up its opposition to a publicly owned span, seems so far-fetched that it approaches the ludicrous.
It's more likely that Scales met with a friend for what he thought would be a private conversation, and offered some advice. And then someone from the Moroun legal team took that information and twisted it into something that appears truly nefarious.
But our opinion doesn't count much here.
What matters is what the Attorney Grievance Commission and the Judicial Tenure Commission have to say.
We do know this much: Someone is clearly in the wrong. Either threats were made and not properly reported, or false information was presented to the court.
Either way, the allegations need to be thoroughly investigated.
Attorney Reginald Turner (l) at a court hearing last month with his now former client Matty Moroun.