News Column

A Billionaire's Jail Cell: Chicken-fried Steak, Little Privacy

Jan. 13, 2012

John Gallagher, Matt Helms and Jim Schaefer

The billionaire became inmate No. 12-981, having lost his battle with a judge.

Ambassador Bridge owner Manuel (Matty) Moroun and top aide Dan Stamper traded in business suits for green prisoner's garb Thursday on their first day in Wayne County, Ill., jail for civil contempt of court.

Their Thursday evening appeal was denied by a three-judge panel of the Michigan Court of Appeals. That means the pair will stay in jail at least until the court hears further arguments, if any are made, or if the Wayne County judge who put them there relents.

Just like other inmates, the two were offered chicken-fried steak for dinner. Their mug shots were taken, and the two shared a 10-by-15-foot cell in an isolated wing.

There's little privacy, with no door on the bathroom inside the cell in a section that also housed former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, among other notable inmates.

Wayne County Circuit Judge Prentis Edwards ruled Nov. 4 that the Detroit International Bridge Co. was in civil contempt of court for defying his orders to finish the long-delayed Gateway project, a joint project with the Michigan Department of Transportation designed to ease border traffic at the Ambassador Bridge.

On Thursday, Edwards ordered the men to jail. They were ushered from the early morning hearing to spend at least one night behind bars. It was unclear when they might be released. The state appeals court could eventually rule in their favor, or order them freed on bond while their case is decided. Otherwise, they could face a lengthy jail stay.

Edwards said he was unswayed by attorneys' contention in court that Moroun and Stamper were resigning at that moment from the board of the bridge company and therefore no longer in a legal position to finish the $230-million Gateway project.

Edwards told the packed courtroom: "It is clear that the Detroit International Bridge Co. does not intend to comply with the court order unless meaningful sanctions are imposed."

Shortly after the jail sentence was handed out, the bridge company released a statement saying it would not accept the resignations and they were never in effect. "Nothing has changed in the hierarchy of the company's chain of command," Alan Upchurch, a spokesman for the bridge company, said in an e-mail.

'Business as usual'

Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon said late Thursday that the men were being treated like any other inmates, though Moroun's age, 84, merited careful monitoring. The jail infirmary is just down the hall from his cell.

Other than that, Napoleon said, the inmates presented no serious challenges. "Our job is to incarcerate those who have been remanded to the jail," Napoleon said. "Our business is business as usual."

With the remaining construction on Gateway likely to take six months to a year, it was unclear how much progress would have to be made to satisfy Edwards and spring Moroun and Stamper from jail.

The project is designed to ease border traffic by connecting the bridge directly to I-75 and I-96 through a series of new ramps and roads. It would allow truckers and other motorists to bypass local surface streets in southwest Detroit.

MDOT will be satisfied only with real signs of construction, chief operating officer Greg Johnson said.

"We take no joy or satisfaction in seeing these men incarcerated," he said after the hearing. "All we want -- all we've ever wanted -- is for the contract to be fulfilled so we can complete our project and move forward."

Moroun's son, Matthew Moroun, vice chairman of the family's business network, accused Edwards on Thursday of a "personal vendetta" against his family.

"Without a trial, without a jury, with no notice stating the reasons for them to appear, a judge viciously lashed out at Matty Moroun and Dan Stamper today and ordered a penalty outside the bounds of a civil case that was excessive, unwarranted and outrageous," Matthew Moroun said in a written statement.

'It's about ... a solution'

Legal experts said it is well within a judge's discretion to order people jailed indefinitely on contempt charges until they comply with court orders -- a legal hammer used to coerce cooperation from those who have not shown a willingness to follow a judge's demands. Uncooperative defendants can be detained indefinitely until they comply or win appeal from a higher court.

The nature of the case makes it an unusual finding of contempt, said University of Detroit Mercy law professor Larry Dubin.

Usually, compliance can be achieved, he said, by a simple act: "The payment of money, the performance of some act," Dubin said.

It might take days or weeks to prove Moroun and Stamper are substantially complying with Edwards' orders.

The jailing culminates years of litigation and efforts by MDOT to get the bridge company to build its portion of the Gateway project as agreed to in a 2004 contract.

MDOT sued the bridge company in 2009 after it saw the company wasn't building its portion according to what MDOT has said was the agreed-upon design. Instead, the company built a roadway that took traffic past the company's lucrative duty-free store and fuel pumps, and that kept thousands of trucks bound for expressways on Fort and other surface streets.

The Free Press reported last year that the duty-free fuel pumps alone could be worth millions of dollars a year in revenue to the bridge company.

At the time, Matthew Moroun denied it was worth several million but would not elaborate.

Edwards ruled for MDOT in February 2010 and ordered the bridge company to rebuild according to the contractual design, even if it meant ripping out the duty-free facilities. But nearly two years later, the work remains unfinished.

Scott Brines, president of the Southwest Detroit Community Benefits Coalition, which has been at odds with the bridge company over truck traffic and noise, said the judge's ruling was a "win for the people."

"This is not about people going to jail, it's about bringing a solution to get trucks off of our neighborhood streets, as the Gateway development was intended to do," he said.

Debate over power

In the hour-long hearing Thursday, attorneys for Moroun and Stamper offered multiple arguments to keep the men out of jail. They argued that jailing for civil contempt of court violated the constitutional rights of Moroun and Stamper.

Various attorneys for Moroun and his bridge company argued that Moroun was not the owner of DIBC, as MDOT contended, but a minority shareholder through a series of family trusts and partnerships.

"Now that they have resigned, they have no power to do anything" associated with the bridge or the unfinished ramp work, defense lawyer Craig John argued.

Robert Mol, an assistant attorney general representing MDOT, countered that Moroun exercised total control over the company as a director and shareholder.

Judge Edwards agreed: "Mr. Moroun has the power and the authority."

John also argued that Edwards and MDOT have set up "a moving goal line" throughout proceedings so that it has not been clear exactly what specifications the bridge company should follow to avoid contempt.

Edwards rejected that argument, too.

Edwards said he considered which penalty would get Gateway completed the soonest. He considered but rejected the idea of appointing a receiver to take over the project from the bridge company. That would "only result in further delays," he said.

He also noted that financial penalties for civic contempt of court were limited to $7,500. He levied that fine but said it was not enough to win compliance.

Order stuns Moroun

Moroun had entered the courtroom smiling and greeting his associates but appeared shocked and stunned after Edwards ordered him jailed.

In an attempt to keep Moroun from actually serving time, his personal attorney, William Sankbeil, told Edwards that Moroun had several heart issues.

"To put an 84-year-old gentleman of this age and this stature in jail" was unfair, the attorney said. "I would rather take his place and go to jail than to see him. This is very upsetting. I don't think it's necessary."

MDOT chief operating officer Johnson said after the hearing that even if the bridge company now complied fully with the state, it would take about a year to complete the ramps and connections between the bridge and freeways.

"We know that it's going to take cooperation between their organization and MDOT to finish this thing in a timely manner," Johnson said. "Cooperation is the key rather than throwing money at it."

Staff writer Katherine Yung contributed to this report.

Source: (c) 2012 the Detroit Free Press

Story Tools Facebook Linkedin Twitter RSS Feed Email Alerts & Newsletters