Moroun's money writes sad tale for state

You might not think finger-pointing could make a sound of its own, but it does. High, thin and very penetrating.

And it could be heard all over Lansing after last week’s vote in the Senate Economic Development Committee sunk -- at least temporarily -- the much-debated project to build another bridge connecting Detroit with Canada.

Start with Gov. Rick Snyder and Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, who had made the bridge a key legislative objective -- and who suffered their first major setback. Lots of Lansing insiders sniffed that former Gov. John Engler could have done a better job of twisting arms.

Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville, R-Monroe,, whose job includes managing the Republican-controlled Senate, ducked responsibility after the vote, telling the MIRS news service: “I never said I was there to win over my own members. What I said was I would manage the process.”

Richardville and Senate Republicans blamed Senate Democrats for screwing things up and overplaying their hand by introducing, at the last moment, a bill containing “community benefits” for the Delray district in Detroit, where the new bridge would connect on the U.S. side.

When Republicans refused to include their demands, Senate Minority Floor Leader Tupac Hunter and Sen. Virgil Smith, both Detroit Democrats, abstained on the final vote, dooming the measure, which went down on a Republican-only 3-2 vote. (Technically, they voted not to send the bridge bills to the full Senate.)

For their part, Senate Democrats (who hold 12 of the Senate's 38 seats) complained the Republicans reneged on a deal to include community benefits in the final bill. Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer, D-East Lansing,, said “You gotta deliver when you make a promise,” referring to Sen. Richardville.

Other Lansing insiders, who refused to be quoted by name, offered various comments:

“It was amateur hour,” said one, adding “You don’t schedule a vote unless you’ve got the votes.”

Another commented that the bridge bill was “everybody’s No. 2 issue.”

Meanwhile, the Manuel Moroun family’s Detroit International Bridge Co. was tightly focused in opposition.

“Tightly focused” understates the point. Moroun interests spent massively to protect their very profitable Ambassador Bridge monopoly, which is completely owned by 84-year-old billionaire Manuel “Matty” Moroun. According to the nonprofit, nonpartisan Michigan Campaign Finance Network, Moroun sources contributed at least $565,000 to political campaigns in the 2010 election cycle, including 18 candidates who are now members of the state Senate.

The Detroit Free Press has reported that the Moroun family’s contributions included $9,700 to six of the seven members of the Senate Economic Development Committee. The report said that the only committee member who did not receive money from them was State Sen. Dave Hildenbrand, R-Lowell.

We cannot assume their spending stopped there. What political action committee contributions the Morouns made in the last 90 days won’t be known until the Secretary of State’s Office releases its next report. We won’t know how much was given to individual lawmaker campaigns until next Jan. 31, thanks to Michigan campaign disclosure laws.

So, members of the Senate Economic Development Committee made their votes on the bridge without the public having knowledge of who contributed what to whom recently.

The Ambassador Bridge company also spent something more than $5 million on a blitz of TV ads attacking the state bridge proposal. The ads have been widely criticized as inaccurate and untruthful, including being flagged for a “flagrant foul” by the Michigan Truth Squad.

I’ve asked around on whether Moroun interests also were in cahoots with the Tea Party in threatening primary opposition next year to Republicans who voted for the bridge. Nobody I talked with will say so on the record -- but most say it’s likely.

The scope of spending by Moroun family interests in opposition to the New International Trade Crossing is unprecedented. And it’s quite clear that without spending millions, the lobbying campaign against the bridge would have failed.

Virtually every major actor outside the Legislature, from the automakers to Oakland County Executive Brooks Patterson, wants a new bridge. But the vast amount of money put against the bridge produced a distinct change in how our state’s political system worked.

And that, in turn, brings up the tricky question of what’s bribery and what’s not. Detroit Free Press columnist Brian Dickerson last Sunday made the point this way: “But I can't for the life of me understand the practical difference between rigging the game with illegal bribes and rigging it with campaign contributions that are neither effectively regulated nor disclosed in a timely way, except that the former gets you a prison cell and the latter wins you grudging admiration for knowing how to cheat the way gentlemen do."

I suspect this isn’t over, and the proposed new bridge will come back onto the table in months to come. Building it is just too important to the economic future of the state. The construction alone would generate thousands of jobs, while a modern bridge would be the linchpin of an international trade powerhouse centered on southeasternMichigan.

And if we care anything about ethics, the stage is now set for a thorough look at Michigan’s present bribery statutes and the ways we report political contributions. If anything reinforces deep and widespread public skepticism at the integrity of our political system, the whole disgusting and offensive bridge saga is it.

Editor’s note: Former newspaper publisher and University of Michigan Regent Phil Power is a longtime observer of Michigan politics and economics. He is also the founder and president of The Center for Michigan, a nonprofit, bipartisan centrist think-and-do tank, designed to cure Michigan’s dysfunctional political culture. He is also on the board of the Center’s Business Leaders for Early Education. The opinions expressed here are Power’s own and do not represent the official views of the Center. He welcomes your comments at ppower@thecenterformichigan.net.

 

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Comments

Gretchen Whitmer
Tue, 10/25/2011 - 8:14am
No Democratic amendments were offered "at the last minute" as Senator Richardville claims. He, his chief of staff and his lawyer (and the Governor's office) helped craft the Hunter Substitute of which he, Senator Richardville, later disclaimed knowledge. The sub would have merely codified the basic stakeholder protections required by the "green sheet" - - protections any Republican legislator would have insisted on at a bare minimum had the bridge been in their community. I am curious, how often - - if ever - - in Michigan history has a Majority Leader ever seen his own party kill his his bill? Perhaps the special interests have more control of the Majority caucus than their leader does.
Kyle Caldwell
Tue, 10/25/2011 - 8:33am
Phil's comments should encourage all Michigan voters to ask, "Is Michigan really for sale?"
JoeBlog
Tue, 10/25/2011 - 9:22am
Your underlying assumption is that DRIC made sense. It did not with traffic dropping 40-50% since 2000 and no facts provided that the project was financially viable. However, your commentary like that of most media types is incomplete and one-sided Too bad that you forgot about the army of special interest lobbyists acting for unknown clients that were called upon to lobby against the Bridge Company after the Mackinac conference Too bad that you forgot about the Funds set up by the Governor to accept unlimited money from anonymous contributors Too bad that you forgot about Canada's $550 million "inducement" that might be paid if and only if the State passed Bills that Canada wanted for its purposes. Too bad that you have never calculated how much taxpayer money all Governments have wasted so far on a DRIC project designed to try to force the Morouns to sell out cheaply so a bridge right beside the Ambassador Bridge can be built Yes, it's too bad
Concerned
Tue, 10/25/2011 - 9:47am
Watching this unfold over the last year, you could see this coming, given the large expenditures from the Ambassador Bridge Company on television and direct mail. There were enough half truths and untruths from the bridge company that it confounded the public and scared legislators. But when the Governor and Lt. Governor told state senators that they didn't need them and the executive office could do this on their own (through a interlocal agreement with Canada), then there was no need to vote yes for the bridge. Bad chess playing by the Governor on this one.
Chuck Fellows
Tue, 10/25/2011 - 9:56am
Change the political contribution rules in this state and get to the roots of corruption at this scale - no need for "gentleman's agreements" or threats of jail time. No contribution greater than $100. Only one contribution per entity. Campaigns cannot begin until ninety days prior to the general election. All donations go to a blind trust. Blind trust distributes equal amounts to each candidate that is on the general election ballot ninety days before the election. Stop being wusses and get to the real cause of these issues.
Michael Ritenour
Tue, 10/25/2011 - 10:11am
Mr. Power, Bravo to you, Brian Dickerson, and other journalists of integrity who have pointed out the emperor's state of undress (the emperor being the current "system" [sic] of political funding). The rank smell emanating from Michigan is only the first whiff from the gargantuan garbage scow launched by the U.S. Supreme Court when it overturned decades of precedent to create an unfettered right of corporations and individuals to contribute as much and as often as they want to parties, current candidates, non-current candidates, and basically any official who is of sufficiently low character to accept money from any source. I would love to see a muckracking prosecutor or U.S. Attorney with some moxie launch a grand jury investigation and bring charges against the Morouns, their minions, the Senators, and others involved in the purchase of votes against the Bridge (obviously this should be Attorney General Schuette, but he has demonstrated very clearly in his short tenure that he is unwilling to take on controversial issues unless to do so benefits Republican causes). The criticism of Governor Snyder and his staff for being naive or amateurish may be accurate, but it is beside the point: there would have been no need for a massive expenditure of time and political skill or capital had the Senators on the committee taken their oath of office seriously. Please keep up the good work, and let the rest of us know how we can help. Mike Ritenour Farmington (248) 320-6097
Tue, 10/25/2011 - 10:18am
The one positive thing to come out of this IMO is Senate Democrats, tiny as their minority is, proving they can hang together & play hardball. Very different from the utter lack of party discipline you see among Democrats in the U.S. Senate. I wasn't impressed with Whitmer's leadership during the budget process this past year, but I think she, Hunter & Smith did a nice job of sending the message to the Gov's office that he is not going to be accomplish everything he wants without some bipartisan cooperation... and that the caucus is not just going to roll over.
Allan Blackburn
Tue, 10/25/2011 - 10:19am
I fail to see how the Democrats are at fault since they are a minority party in Michigan these days and have not been part of anything that has been steamrolled through the legislative process. As far as this debacle, it clearly shows how corrupt our political system is these days, when the political system is playing to their benefactors only and the people matter very little. I also have to remind myself that this current leadership is one who has retroactively cut people off of cash assistance, lessened the burden for the state in paying unemployment benefits, placed an onerous system in place to limit food stamp eligibility, etc. This same group then focused on their own health care benefits and agreed that those coming in to power, after the current ones leave office, should get their benefits cut. Ethics? Please? We have the best government money can buy.
Cathy
Tue, 10/25/2011 - 10:52am
I'm new to the Bridge. This story makes me wish I had discovered it a long time ago. Wow..what an eye opener!.
Jeffrey Poling
Tue, 10/25/2011 - 11:38am
Thanks for reporting on the political "maneuverings" regarding the NITC and Matty Maroun. Please keep us informed on who voted against this very important project and how much Matty Moroun paid them for their votes. I can't begin to express my frustration over the political corruption in our state from Kwame and his mob to the "votes for sale" gang in Lansing. I have written letters to the Free Press and my elected representatives and personally called them but nothing seems to work. Unfortunately, I can't afford to match Matty's political "contributions". Which begs the question, "What value does that place on my vote?" and "Who do our elected politicians represent - the voters who elected them or the Matty Morouns who bought them?" There must be a process open to the voting public - besides voting which no longer seems to work - that will expose corruption and force honesty on our elected officials.
Duanel
Tue, 10/25/2011 - 7:29pm
"We cannot assume their spending stopped there." Mr. Power uses the classic innuendo journalism, he can't prove it so he says he can't disprove it. The implication isn't about reporting but about New York Times editorial style reporting, make the reporting fit the editorial bent of the publisher. "But I can’t for the life of me understand the practical difference between rigging the game with illegal bribes and rigging it with campaign contributions..." if Brian Dickerson of the Detroit Free Press would only go down to the court house when City Council members are on trial for bribery he might learn the difference. May I stoop to both Mr. Power's and Mr. Dickerson's method, I wonder if the vote had gone thier way they would have care about this or if they have raised in their reporting such concerns when it could have been about an organization delivering results that they were aligned with views on what was best for our state. The Bridge issue is a joke to anyone who has driven from Chicago to Detroit on I-94. There is more backup and delays with that road than with the bridge. And until they make I-94 three lanes each way traffic from a new bridge will go down I-75 to I-80 by-passing the rest of Michgan and where the supposed future jobs would go. It is spin on both sides and anyone who thinks differently is diluting themselves.
Richard Cole
Tue, 10/25/2011 - 9:08pm
As I said earlier today, and will say it again because it seems to have such relevance to the comment above: As disgusting as this Bridge situation seems, little good will come from waving sabres or predicting Federal investigations. Maybe its time to take a deep breath. It would seem to make sense for everyone in the process -- politicians and lobbyists alike -- to be thankful we live in a government system that encourages political contributions, freely given and accepted with no strings attached, and incarcerates people convicted of bribery and public corruption who act contrary to this principle.
Al
Wed, 10/26/2011 - 8:48am
Thanks Phil for a very well written article. the people of Michigan need to know the benefits of have a good truck route to Canada's new port. I heard about what Canada is doing last week. How many of Michigans oeople know that Canada is building a new port facility for world commerce.Maybe someone with more ability than I have could write an article explaining what Canada is doing in this area of commerce. Thanks again for a very good and important article.
Woof
Wed, 10/26/2011 - 12:09pm
So who were the three GOP scumbags who voted against it?
Neil
Fri, 10/28/2011 - 3:25pm
Who takes Moroun's side? The private sector owns the Ambassador Bridge. The province of Ontario considers private ownership of international bridges and tunnels evil. So the new Detroit bridge must be government owned. I think the province of Ontario is targeted on putting the Ambassador Bridge out of business. When the new bridge is completed, the province of Ontario can order the approaches to the Ambassador Bridge blocked putting Moroun out of business, making his investment worthless. The reason the province of Ontario does not want to twin the Ambassador Bridge is that it would increase traffic through a local neighborhood. But Ontario has had the capability since 1929, the building of the Ambassador Bridge, to build a freeway or limited access highway from the the Ambassador Bridge to the 401, before the local residences and businesses were built up. Is it the business of government to destroy businesses and investments? For a socialist government it is.
Neil
Fri, 10/28/2011 - 3:33pm
Why not let the province of Ontario finance and build the bridge? Michigan would supply the permits for its side of the river and pay for the Michigan infrastructure.