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Canada-U.S. bridge: With work undone, billionaire and aide jailed

January 12, 2012 |  1:58 pm

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The United States and Canada peacefully share the world’s longest border, but a bridge linking the two countries has prompted legal fireworks -- including the jailing of an 84-year-old billionaire and one of his top business aides.

Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Prentis Edwards on Thursday ordered Manuel “Matty” Moroun, 84, and Dan Stamper, an executive with Detroit International Bridge Co., to jail for failing to comply with deadlines to build freeway connections to the Ambassador Bridge, which links Detroit and Windsor, Ontario.

Both men were taken out of a Detroit courtroom and sent to jail until they comply with the judge’s order that they complete their contract with the state to build the connecting ramps.

Lawyers for the two men have filed expedited appeals, hoping to have them freed quickly, company spokesman Al Upchurch said in a telephone interview.

“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,” Moroun’s son, Matthew, said in an emailed statement. “This entire legal process has clearly become a personal vendetta by the judge against these individuals,” he said.

Officials at the Michigan Department of Transportation said they were pleased with the ruling and urged the businessmen to comply with its commitment to complete the project.

“The Michigan Department of Transportation does not want to see anyone incarcerated,” Greg Johnson, the agency’s chief operations officer, said in a prepared statement. “Our goal is to complete the project in a way that honors the contract and offers safety and efficiency to the motoring public and taxpayers of Michigan.”

The dispute has its roots in a 2004 contract between the state and the Detroit International Bridge Co., according to the state agency. The goal of the $230-million contract was to connect two highways to the bridge “in a manner that allows truckers and other motorists to bypass local surface streets,” the agency stated. The project is also known at the Gateway project.

In 2009, the state agency sued the company, alleging that the project was not being built according to the agreed design and charging that the company’s route did not meet the requirement to improve freeway connections. The company’s route included some surface streets.

In February 2010, the judge issued an order to rebuild the disputed portion of the project.

“The evidence shows that DIBC is not presently complying and does not intend to comply with the orders of this court,” Edwards said in a Nov. 3 ruling. “The construction plans for the truck road and the access road do not comply with the requirements of the court orders.”

Technically, the judge held the two men in contempt for failing to fulfill the 2010 order. Such a charge usually carries just a fine, but Edwards held that the amount was too small to force the project to be rebuilt, according to media reports of the court proceeding.

The company, Edwards reportedly said, has had almost two years to comply but “has simply chosen to ignore its obligation … and ignore the court order.”

Edwards did not return a telephone call to his chambers.

Lawyers for Moroun and Stamper unsuccessfully argued that their clients had resigned their positions with the Bridge company and that incarceration would violate their clients’ rights.

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-- Michael Muskal

Photo: Detroit International Bridge Co. owner Manuel "Matty" Moroun, center, sits in a Detroit courtroom. Wayne County Circuit Judge Prentis Edwards sent Moroun and company President Dan Stamper to jail for failing to comply with a court order to finish construction on the Gateway project, which is meant to connect the Ambassador Bridge to area freeways. Credit: Carlos Osorio / Associated Press

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