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Billionaire dubbed ‘real-life Montgomery Burns’ ordered to jail

January 12, 2012

An 84-year-old Detroit billionaire who owns the nation's busiest border crossing was ordered to jail Thursday for contempt of court. Here's why Manuel "Matty" Moroun gets compared to Montgomery Burns.

To understand Moroun and his importance requires some Detroit geography. The Ambassador Bridge spanning the Detroit River to Windsor, Ontario, was built by a private company in 1929. After decades of boom and bust, it was bought by Moroun in 1979, whose family-owned trucking business relied on it. With dozens of models from the Chevy Camaro to the Toyota RAV4 built in Canada, the Ambassador Bridge has grown into the nation's busiest bridge; some $100 billion in goods crosses it every year, one-fourth of the trade between Canada and the United States.

Since buying the Ambassador, Moroun has aggressively fought every attempt by governments and businesses on either side of the Detroit River to add a public bridge, from political pressure to lawsuits. The Ambassador is the only privately owned international bridge in the United States; the next nearest crossing suitable for semi-truck traffic is 67 miles north. Between hefty bridge tolls, its duty-free gas stations and his trucking empire, Moroun has earned a fortune of $1.8 billion, according to Forbes.

Around Detroit, Moroun has also been known for buying up hundreds of land parcels while doing little to restore them to excellent condition. Among the properties Moroun owns is the Michigan Central Station, the never-finished abandoned tower that's long been the image of Detroit's ruin. Earlier this year, Moroun's companies said they would put some new windows in.

But the aggressive defense of the bridge could be his downfall. As the Detroit Free Press reported, Wayne County Circuit Judge Prentis Edwards ordered Moroun and a deputy to jail Thursday for contempt of court over a long-running dispute with the state of Michigan. Semi trucks traveling on and off the Ambassador Bridge have to take surface roads through Detroit neighborhoods rather than just exiting off a freeway. After the state of Michigan and Moroun's bridge company agreed to build expressway ramps in 2004, the state sued in 2009, saying Moroun's company built new roads that took trucks past Moroun-owned gas stations and left thousands of trucks still rolling on streets.

A federal judge ordered the bridge company to rip out the roads and build according to its deal with Michigan in February 2010, and threw Moroun's deputy in jail for contempt last January. Moroun's lawyers contended today that the two men had resigned from the bridge company's board and no longer had power over the project, adding that Moroun wasn't even the true owner of the bridge. (The attorney even offered to go to jail in Moroun's place. That's service.)

The judge disagreed, and at last report, Moroun had been led from the courtroom into custody. The state has asked for an independent overseer for the project, but no one who's ever faced Moroun would dare think the fight will end soon.