Billionaire Manuel 'Matty' Moroun jailed for contempt

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Before Thursday morning’s hearing in front of Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Prentis Edwards, reporters and other observers were discussing whether 84-year-old billionaire Manuel “Matty” Moroun would actually comply with an order to appear in court to face contempt charges.

The question now is, “How much time he will spend in jail?”

The man who lawyers for the state say controls the Detroit International Bridge Co. — the entity that owns the Ambassador Bridge, a major international trade crossing linking Detroit and Windsor — and his chief lieutenant, bridge company president Dan Stamper, were cited with civil contempt and sent to Wayne County jail by a stern-faced, unwavering Prentis.

With the courtroom packed with lawyers, media and community members, Moroun entered the courtroom nearly an hour after proceedings were scheduled to start. At first he showed a tight-lipped smile. As it became clear he was going to be spending at least some time behind bars, that expression turned to what looked like open-mouthed disbelief.

Nearly two years ago, Edwards found that the company had failed to complete its share of the southwest Detroit Gateway Project. A year ago, Stamper was briefly jailed after Edwards first cited the company with contempt for refusing to complete its share of the project as outlined in a contract with the Michigan Department of Transportation. Prentis on Thursday ordered the Moroun and Stamper jailed in an attempt to “coerce” them into completing the project as planned.

A small platoon of lawyers was in court to represent Moroun, Stamper and the company. They vowed to file immediate appeals.

Attorney William Sankbeil, representing Moroun, first argued that his client bore no legal responsibility for the bridge company’s actions. When the judge dismissed that claim, Sankbeil argued that jailing Moroun was an “egregious” violation the mogul’s constitutional rights to due process.

The attorney also urged the judge to consider Moroun’s “age and stature.” It was also pointed out that he has a history of heart problems.

At another point, Sankbeil claimed that, in his 40 years of practicing law, he’d never seen a court take such an action. He also said that he’d willingly take his client's place behind bars.

At one point, Moroun’s hastily signed resignation from the board of the DIBC was laid on the rail in front of the court clerk.

Among other things, an attorney for Stamper argued that he wasn’t given proper notification that he could be subject to sanctions.

Undeterred by any of the arguments or theatrics, Prentis ordered that the two men remain in jail until work is completed allowing truck traffic direct access to the bridge. Keeping truck traffic off of surface streets in the area around the bridge and truck plaza was a driving force behind the $230 million public-private project.

It is unclear how long it will take for the company to finish its share of the project. At the very least, it will take several months for the company to get the job done. One of the issues is the so-called “ramp to nowhere,” an approach the company built with the expectation that it would build a second span adjacent to the Ambassador.

However, the company has yet to receive approval from either the U.S. or Canada to build that second span.

After Thursday’s hearing, MDOT’s Greg Johnson said that ramp, referred to in court documents as Pier 19, stands in the way of constructing a truck ramp the bridge company is contractually obligated to build.

"We take no joy or satisfaction in seeing these men incarcerated," Johnson said. “We just want to see the project completed.”

Others, however, expressed definite satisfaction with the judge’s actions.

“This is how justice works,” said community activist Deb Sumner, a southwest Detroit resident who applauded when Prentis announced his decision.

“I’ve watched the DIBC’s antics for over 30 years,” she said.

Businessman Gregg Ward, whose family operates a ferry that transports trucks across the Detroit River, is another longtime critic of the DIBC.

“Great wealth and stature are not the deciding factors on how laws are applied,” said Ward. “This is an example that, just because you are rich and powerful, that doesn’t mean you can avoid justice.”

That is a lesson Matty Moroun just learned the hard way.

 

 

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