Lethal Greenfield

By Joel Thurtell

A main — if not the only — purpose of a museum should be to teach us about the past. But Greenfield Village and The Henry Ford have missed a golden opportunity to teach about about industrial safety.

About 29 years of teachable moment wasted..

So let me fill the gap.

A friend recently invited me to visit Greenfield Village. She has a pass and goes often, so she suggested I be the guide and pick the exhibits to see. There was something in the back of my mind that I pushed further down.

We went into the glass blowing display and watched an artisan skillfully shaping a piece of molten glass. We went into the Wright Cycle Shop and watched a docent operating a wind tunnel,  demonstrating the principles of flight. I still had that ugly thing in the back of my mind.

We went into the glassware museum, and I noticed it was a few steps from the Armington & Sims machine shop. That’s the magnet that was drawing me, the locus of the unpleasantness I was trying to set aside.

Well, I thought, let’s go in and have a look. We walked into the 19th-century plant, passing drill presses that were powered by a steam engine via overhead drive shafts and belts.

The building was quiet. The steam engine that runs the tools was not running. I noted the metal cages surrounding the power tools. Safety features installed too late.

We stood in front of a window looking through glass at the stationary steam engine that once powered the factory.

Finally, I told my friend the story. How two visitors stood at this point looking through the glass and watched avoidable tragedy happen.

On the day of our visit, the steam engine was idle. There was a docent nearby. My friend asked him a question about the steam engine. “It hasn’t been used since the 1970’s,” the docent told us. I corrected him. The year was 1988, I said. I then told him what had happened to a previous docent as he cleaned that machine. The docent said he’d never heard about that from museum officials.

Curious. With a little imagination, it seems like The Henry Ford could turn that awful event into a real-life lesson illustrating the need for constant vigilance to improve workplace safety.

Here is the August 22, 1988  story that I wrote, published with permission of the Detroit Free Press.


Publication date: 8-22-1988







Text: But a few days ago, a man fell into a large cog wheel in a distillery in

Brown County, Ohio, and was literally mashed to a jelly instantly. An outlay

of 25 cents would have prevented this awful catastrophe. Manufactories, mills

and portable machines are full of “man traps.” Let us have them covered up.

— James M. Goodwin, letter in Feb. 9, 1861, Scientific American


Facing a long wait for an airplane home to St. Louis, Ellen Romkema decided to pass the long, hot afternoon of June 27 at Henry Ford’s world-famous outdoor museum, Greenfield Village.

Minutes after the 31-year-old nurse walked through the museum gates, she discovered what few if any visitors ever noticed — that this turn-of-the-century American industrial village is complete with the kind of 19th Century industrial dangers that prompted James M. Goodwin to write his eloquent 1861 appeal to Scientific American.

Today, museums around the country are waiting to see what steps Dearborn’s Greenfield Village, foremost in the field of working industrial museum displays, will take to ensure that the tragedy Romkema witnessed never happens again.

Through an observation window in Greenfield Village’s Armington & Sims Machine Shop & Foundry, Romkema and a friend watched an elderly village employe shining a brass oil guard on the 50-horsepower C.H. Brown & Co. stationary steam engine. The Brown engine turns belts supplying power to the shop’s lathes, drill presses and slotting machines.

“I pointed out, ‘Look at this little guy — I bet he has been here working with engines since they made them,” Romkema recalls.

Suddenly, the peaceful, almost hypnotic back and forth rhythm of the piston and the cycling of the crankshaft were gruesomely disrupted.

“He was polishing the brass guard with a loose rag,” Romkema recalls. “His rag got caught in the belt and I saw his arm go in and I said, “Oh, oh, oh, oh, he’s hurt. By the time I said ‘he’s hurt,’ it had decapitated him.”

The grisly accident brought Greenfield Village founder Henry Ford I’s philosophy that the exhibits must authentically depict historical industrial methods into direct conflict with modern requirements for workplace safety.

A month after the accident, a report by the state Department of Labor’s occupational safety and health agency, commonly known as “MiOSHA,” indicatedthat August Lasanen, 85, would not have been killed if Greenfield Village had obeyed elementary industrial safety rules.

Greenfield retools for safety drawings jpgUntil Lasanen’s death, MiOSHA had never inspected the methods Greenfield Village used to work its antique machines, said MiOSHA Director Mark Smith.

Ironically, according to museum curator John Bowditch, it was Henry Ford himself who in 1929 placed the fatal oil guard, against which Lasanen was decapitated, on the 1890s-vintage C.H. Brown & Co. steam engine “to make it look nicer.”

The day after Lasanen’s death, the old Brown steam engine was unmoving, waiting for a MiOSHA inspector to check Lasanen’s workplace for possible violations of state safety standards. In addition to the Brown engine, all steam-powered machinery and generators at Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village were stopped.

With the exception of the steamboat Suwanee, recently fitted with

OSHA-approved safety guards, the steam engine boilers have not been fired since Lasanen’s death.

Word of the accident and an impending state safety report quickly reached the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., where steam-operated machines were shut down and dozens of workers were retrained in safety methods, said Steve Lubar, curator of engineering and industry at the Smithsonian.

Now, officials at the Smithsonian are waiting to see what safety methods evolve at Greenfield Village, where, Lubar said: “John Bowditch is really the most expert of anyone in the country in running 19th-Century steam engines.”

The idea of putting modern safety devices on antique machines didn’t sit well with some museum people.

“There’s a magic about steam engines, but it doesn’t happen until it’s operating,” said Jan House, director of the Old Courthouse Museum in Berrien Springs. “If you put a bunch of guards on them, you don’t show people the real thing.”

The day after Lasanen’s death, John Scott, superintendent of the museum’s railroad yard and Lasanen’s boss, said Lasanen was a railroad steam locomotive engineer for 49 years and “just through experience he’s probably done things like that many times.”

Scott also defended the museum’s special mission of preserving the authenticity of its exhibits without interposing any modern devices, including safety mechanisms.

“If OSHA came in and was going to treat us like any other factory, there would be a million guards and protection and just plate steel everywhere,” said Scott.

Observed Greenfield Village public relations officer Margaret Johnson, “The village has been operating since 1929, and this is the first fatality we’ve ever had.”

But Monica Lasanen, Lasanen’s daughter-in-law, said the engineer’s family may sue Greenfield Village. The Lasanens’ attorney, Jack Bindes, said, “I don’t think any worker bargains to get killed on the job.”

MiOSHA director Smith said, “We don’t care if you’re working with a 1900 machine — you’re working with a 1988 employe.”

While declaring that the overall worker safety record at Greenfield Village and Henry Ford Museum has been good, Smith’s office on July 27 listed three dozen violations of workplace safety regulations and levied $560 in fines.

The 1976 MiOSHA law states that the “duty of an employer is to furnish to each employe . . . a place of employment which is free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to the employe.”

According to MiOSHA, the museums violated that mandate by failing to install guards that would have prevented Lasanen from approaching the steam engine that killed him. They also failed to train Lasanen and other employes in proper safety procedures and failed to equip antique machines with foolproof shutoff systems, the agency said.

Smith said the MiOSHA inspector found a double standard of safety at Greenfield Village.

In maintenance shops out of sight of exhibits, the museums were using acceptable safety procedures, but in areas where visitors view the museums’ working exhibits, MiOSHA listed numerous safety violations, including:

* An improperly and dangerously exposed flywheel on the Arthur Corliss 1888 air-powered engine at the Power Tour Museum.

* No guard and an inadequate barrier on a “flywheel exposed to contact (where) employes walk around unit (to) demonstrate to visitors” at the 1894 Imperial Engine Generator on the Henry Ford Museum’s Power Tour.

* Exposed running belt and pulley near workers running the Wheelwright Shop’s Wolverine drill press.

* No guard or barrier to protect operators from two exposed and moving steam engine cranks and piston rods on the Suwanee steamboat.

Museum director Bowditch said: “I honestly have to say they caught me.

We had our own lockout procedure, in a sense. We turn the machine off before we work on it. But putting a lock on it simply didn’t occur to me.”

Bowditch disagrees with MiOSHA’s report that the “safety officer noted through discussions with these affected employes that in the past they have oiled the C.H. Brown steam engine with the engine running.”

“I have to honestly tell you I never wrote down, ‘Shut down the machine before you work on it,’ but it was policy — you do not work on something that is running.”

Within a week after Lasanen’s death, Bowditch had designed and installed a wrought-iron cage with a metal roof to enclose the moving piston rods on the Suwanee steamboat. A fence-like structure also prevents anyone from stumbling into the moving paddlewheel.

To work on the piston rods, an engineer must first shut down the steam engine and lock it off, Bowditch said.

A similar procedure is being designed for the Armington & Sims shop where

Lasanen was killed.

A brass rail with a six-inch kickplate at its bottom will prevent workers

from approaching the moving piston rod, crank and flywheel as Lasanen did.

Smaller wire mesh guards will be placed around belts where they meet pulleys

at “nip points” — places where belts move onto wheels and could pinch clothing or fingers.

Since the accident, Bowditch has re-evaluated every power machine in both museums, and says none will be used again until they meet MiOSHA standards.

“It’s a delicate balance — full compliance without making it look like it,” said Bowditch. “But once you start thinking about safety, then you move throughout the plant.”

Although MiOSHA didn’t cite the village for violations where workers run antique tools in the Armington & Sims shop, Bowditch said he is now aware of many potential dangers.

He is planning to make guards for gears and belts, he said.

Jim Peters, an 85-year-old volunteer machinist, said he doubts it would be possible to make the machines safe because they were designed to be operated in a way that is, by today’s standards, hazardous.

For example, Peters said, to change speed on a lathe, the worker has to move a belt to bigger or smaller pulleys while they are turning.

Bowditch said he plans to have protective boxes placed around belts and gears. Some older workers may have to be retrained in modern safety procedures, he said. As much as possible, he said, modifications will be done using 19th Century techniques.

For instance, the brass rail he plans to install around the Brown steam engine is something that would have been found in a turn-of-the-century shop.

Besides, Bowditch said, guards made of wood, wire-mesh and leather were common in the 19th Century and likely would meet MiOSHA standards today.


The purpose of Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village is “to collect, preserve and interpret to a broad public audience the American historical experience, with a special emphasis on the relationship between technological change and American history.”

The museums contain more than a million objects on 12 acres at Henry Ford Museum and 81 acres at Greenfield Village.

The non-profit Edison Institute’s operating budget is $18 million a year — 40 percent from admission fees, 30 percent from food and souvenir sales and 30 percent from contributions and the institute’s endowment.

The attraction brings 1.1 million visitors a year, making it the largest tourist draw in the state, said Al Sandner, spokesman for the Michigan Tourism Bureau.

The museums employ about 270 full-time workers and between 700 and 900 part-time workers, in addition to 400 volunteers.


Safety improvements at Greenfield Village

The recent fatal accident at Greenfield Village and subsequent safety investigation by MiOSHA has prompted the following immediate improvements in worker safety.

Armington & Sims machine shop and foundry

To protect employes, a locked safety rail with a six-inch kickplate will be built around the C.H. Brown horizontal mill steam engine which was involved in the fatal accident on June 27. Workers will only be able to perform maintenance on the engine when it is off. Also, the oil splash guard, which created a dangerous “nip point” on the machine will be removed.

The Suwanee steamboat

A wrought iron cage with a metal roof was added around the piston rods on either side of the Suwanee steamboat to protect employes. The worker must shut off the engine and unlock the doors on top of the cage in order to oil or perform maintainance on it. Also a safety rail prevents anyone from approaching the moving paddlewheel.


Visitors tour Greenfield Village, where antique machines carrying old-time hazards have killed a man and drawn fines from inspectors.
























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hank-fonde-m-letter-sweater-photo-11-25-2016By Joel Thurtell

The 80-year-old old guy with the shock of white hair wore a fading maize and blue University of Michigan t-shirt, but this old man was not just any Michigan fan. Nor was it just any UM t-shirt.

The younger woman, maybe in her fifties, quite evidently from Ohio, didn’t know either of these things. And neither I nor my two sons who were listening knew something this old man was about to reveal to us, a story I would not piece together for several years, even though I’d known this onetime Michigan football star and coach for more than three decades.

I ought to – I was married to his oldest daughter for forty years.

The conversation — if you can call it that — took place in summer 2003 near the dock at J & G Marina on McGregor Bay in Ontario, a few miles by water from an island where this old man and his family had a summer cottage bought in the mid-1960s, when he was a UM football coach, second-in-command under another well-known Michigan player and coach, Bump Elliott.

The Ohio woman spotted the yellow and blue t-shirt with the UM logo and some script she didn’t understand. The shirt was a gift from UM to Hank and those 1948 team-mates still living at the time Michigan won the Rose Bowl game on January 1, 1998. The shirt commemorated two Rose Bowl victories and two National championships 50 years apart. Hank was a member of that New Year’s Day 1948 UM team that blew the University of Southern California away. The score was Michigan 49, USC 0.

The program for the October 4, 1947 Michigan-Stanford game described “diminutive ‘Hank,’ stout-hearted little speedster from Knoxville, Tenn., weighed about 150 pounds when he flung his compact frame against Army’s giants in 1945 at Yankee Stadium. Army players dubbed him ‘hardest to stop.’ He weighs about ten pounds more now and still is hard to strop. He scored thrice in 1945, averaging 4.1 yards per game, and last year he scored two touchdowns and averaged 3.23. He’s 23 and five-eight.”

The Ohio woman didn’t know this. When her eyes detected blue, her brain saw red. All she knew was that this old man was wearing a t-shirt belonging to the enemy, the hated University of Michigan. She was an Ohio State fan. An easily perturbed Ohio State fan (aren’t they all?). Had she stopped to learn who this old man was, she might have heard an interesting story. But the ending of that story would have perturbed her even more.

My sons and I watched the Ohio woman, unforgettable because she came on so angry, so full of bile, so hostile to an old man who had said nothing to offend her. Hank could not respond round for round to this woman’s incessant, nasty volleys. Hank had Alzheimer’s Disease. His memory had long been gone for the people, places, things and events that once were dear to him. I wonder sometimes if all that knock-about football play with the flimsy leather helmets might have contributed to his memory loss.

But I knew who Hank was and I could have told her some phenomenal things about him. Most of it has nothing to do with football. Why, it was Hank who took me fishing in McGregor Bay and put us over the best bass and pike grounds. It was Hank who coached me to filet a bass or pike. It was Hank who helped me with the summer-long project of replacing the porch roof on our first house in Plymouth. I can hear him still: “Measure twice, cut once,” or he would declare, “level and half a bubble over!”

Hank loved language. His father, who played football for the University of Tennessee, was a poet. Hank did not write poetry, but he had a way of using language that is unforgettable. When he shook your hand, he would say, “Put ‘er there for ninety days!” If you dropped something or made a loud noise, Hank would shout, “Shoot him in the pants! The coat and vest belong to me!” If you were a tall person, he’d tell you, “It’s a long drink of water.” If you cut a fart, he’d say, “Who fired that shot?”

“Some low-down, dirty, good-for-nothin’, thievin’, cussin’, cattle-rustlin’ dirty dawwwg…put GLUE ON MY SADDLE!”

Edith, his wife, would say, “Henry, does this dress make me look fat?”

Hank would reply, “No,…It’s the fat that makes you look fat.”

He had special nicknames for his kids. Karen was “tin can cottontail the cottontail that willy wag.”

Mark was “Marcus Aurelius Vestpocket Pucius.”

You could count on hearing some saying from Hank “the good lord willin’ and the creek don’t rise.”

Hank was proud to hail “from the hills of East Tennessee, home of Andrew Jackson, Andrew Johnson, Cordell Hull, Jellybean Birchfield and other great American statesmen.”

(I’ve posted a collection of Hank’s sayings on my blog, joelontheroad.com.)

Football was an undying love — even with the Alzheimer’s he could correctly call a play. Hank was a high school star in his hometown of Knoxville, where his team once stood four other teams in succession, playing fresh teams a quarter apiece. Hank played something called “scatback,” and helped Knoxville knock off all four teams.

Then there was the memorable movie somebody put together from that January 1, 1948 Rose Bowl game. “Seven Touchdowns in January.” On the screen you can see a small but agile halfback — Hank — scooting around Southern Cal players and lofting the football to a Michigan man for one of those seven touchdowns.

For 10 years in the 1950s, Hank was head football coach at Ann Arbor High School, from 1949-58. In his first eight years, his team lost one game. His overall record was 69 wins, six losses and four ties. Four of the losses occurred his last year, when he and his players knew he was leaving to coach at UM. From 1959-68, Hank coached at UM under Bump Elliott where the win-loss record was nothing to brag about, though it was surpassed, if that is the word, during the era of Rick Rodriquez. Still, Hank coached a Michigan team that won the Jan. 1, 1965 Rose Bowl game against Oregon State, 34-7. Furthermore, the two Michigan coaches in 1965 – Bump Elliott and Hank Fonde – have the distinction of having played on a winning Rose Bowl team and then gone on to coach a team that won the Rose Bowl.

Turns out there was more to learn about Hank and Michigan football, things I didn’t know.

But here was this Ohio woman coming on with her nasty, Michigan-bashing comments, taunting an old man who under normal circumstances couldn’t remember the beginning of a sentence he would try so hard, with such frustration, to conclude.

Yet the Ohio woman wore on, making her crude remarks, getting no response from the old man in the maize and blue t-shirt.

Despite the Alzheimer’s, somehow Hank understood the gist of what the Ohio woman was saying.

As she paused for breath, Hank at last found words.

Amazingly, he put together a sentence rooted in a core memory, a recollection that even the brutal Alzheimer’s could not erase.


It was amazing to hear him utter a complete sentence, and to do it with such sternness, such authority.

The Ohio woman looked at Hank as if she finally understood that this old man was demented.

I have to admit, his comment puzzled me.

The Ohio woman went silent.

I thought about it: “I BEAT OHIO STATE!”

What could Hank have meant?

The Ohio woman drifted away, maybe looking for her next victim, one with a green Michigan State shirt.

Hank died May 6, 2009.

Several years after the conversation on the dock, I was visiting Hank’s son, my brother-in-law, Mark Fonde. (Edith Fonde died in 2007; Hank Fonde died in 2009; Mark Fonde died February 28, 2015, one week before his older sister and my wife, Karen Fonde, died on March 1, 2015.) Mark had – and his wife, Stacey Fonde now has — one of the footballs Hank was given after games when he made crucial plays.

This particular football, faded, worn and deflated, has painted on it, “Michigan 7, Ohio 3.”

What was the significance of that? I asked Mark.

Mark told me the story. It was 1945, the last game of the season, and Michigan was, as usual, facing arch-rival Ohio State. World War II had only recently come to an end. This was a wartime team. Thirteen players, including Hank, were Navy trainees. Four were Marines. Four were discharged veterans.

Michigan’s coach was the legendary Fritz Crisler, and the teams were called the “mad magicians” because it often was hard to tell exactly what they were doing when they drove for touchdowns.

Ohio scored a field goal for 3 points early in the game. The score stayed 0-3 until the last quarter. With eleven minutes remaining, Pete Elliott (Bump’s brother) threw a 25-yard pass to Hank at Ohio’s 19-yard-line. In two plays, Elliott brought the ball to the 10. Elliott was stopped on the next play. Fourth down, one yard for first down. The 85,132 fans in Michigan Stadium were on their feet. Hank crashed the Ohio line and took the ball five yards for the first down. Ohio was off sides on the next play. Penalty. The ball was on the one-yard line. Hank crashed into the end zone. The extra point was good. Final score: Michigan 7, Ohio 3.

According to Mark, Hank was knocked out during that play. He came to in the locker room, and someone handed him the ball.

Years later, I mentioned the Ohio State story to my older son, Adam. He reminded me of what granddad said to the Ohio woman.

Finally, I understand what Hank meant.

If she could only know: How many people can say what Hank told that Ohio woman?



Drop me a line at joelthurtell(at)gmail.com


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Originally published here on February 1, 2012

By Joel Thurtell

The answer:


The question:

How do you spell Detroit/Wayne County Port Authority?

According to Gongwer News Service, Gov. Rick Snyder might use the port authority to bypass the Legislature in his quest to build a new international bridge between Detroit and Windsor.

Gongwer reported in Volume #51, Report #1, Article #3, Tuesday, January 3, 2012:

Exactly what option the (Snyder) administration might pursue is unclear at this point. The options said by one source to have been under closest review are, in no particular order, an intergovernmental agreement between Canada and public entities in Michigan, using the Detroit-Wayne County Port Authority or turning the project over to the federal government.

The chief obstacle in the Legislature has been all the pressure Ambassador Bridge owner Matty Moroun has put on state reps and senators using that ever-so-persuasive policy argument, his check book.

So, when the governor thinks of working around the Legislature, he needs to remember that what he’s REALLY trying to sidestep is not lawmakers, but the BILLIONAIRE, Manuel “Matty” Moroun.

That being the case, using the Detroit/Wayne County Port Authority would NOT be a good way to avoid the heavy hand of Matty.

The Detroit/Wayne County Port Authority and Matty Moroun are pretty much the same thing.

Oh, I know, the port authority has a grandiose title, making it sound governmental. And it was established under some 1978 state law allowing local governments to establish port authorities to promote transportation.

All the same, Matty owns the Detroit/Wayne County Port Authority.

How can that possibly be?

Doesn’t the governor appoint one of the authority’s board members?

Aren’t the other four members appointed two each by the Detroit City Council and Wayne County Board of Commissioners?

Those are good questions, given the fact that a fair number of elected and appointed officials have been complicit in handing over control of this potentially lucrative and powerful body to the billionaire, Matty Moroun.

There is much to question in the contract between Matty and the port authority, because the governing document setting up Matty’s Ambassador Port Company as “master concessionaire” for the port authority is shrouded in secrecy.

“CONFIDENTIAL” — that warning is typed on the header of each page of the Master Concession Agreement by and between the Detroit/Wayne County Port Authority and the Ambassador Port Company.”

We the citizens were not supposed to know about this cushy deal made in 2005 when Kwame Kilpatrick was King of Detroit and hardly anyone knew who owned the Ambassador Bridge.

According to the Research and Analysis Division of the Detroit City Council, the Master Concession Agreement may violate the Michigan Open Meetings Act.

Despite its labeling, the contract can’t be confidential, because the open meetings law requires that “all decisions of a public body be made at a meeting open to the public” and “all deliberations of a public body constituting a quorum of its members shall take place at a meeting open to the public.”

According to a March 17, 2006 report of the council’s research agency, it is unclear whether the 2005 contract was adopted in an open meeting.

If it was adopted openly, then it can’t be confidential. If it was adopted secretly, then its legal standing could be challenged.

Why would Matty and his public official cronies want to hide this document?

Because it gives the Detroit/Wayne County Port Authority to Matty!

The pretext for this legalized piracy was a roughly $2 million debt the port authority owed.

Kind-hearted Matty stepped in to pay off the debt.

Then Matty worked a deal to repay himself — for a price.

His price was control over the operations and revenues of the port authority for 25 years, renewable three times for up to a century.

That’s right — for 100 years Matty agreed to pay the port authority a paltry 2.5 percent of gross revenues.

Well, not exactly 2.5 percent.

You see, there are deductions for interest costs.

The Master Concession Agreement is 30 pages long.

Lots and lots of words.

Remember, the port authority is supposedly a public body.

Not only is it subject to the Michigan Open Meetings and Freedom of Information laws.

But it is required under the state Constitution to be run for the benefit of the public.

Which is to say, for the good of you and me, taxpayers and citizens of Michigan and the United States.

The port authority was not meant to be given away to a pirate like Matty whose every intention — you can read it in the contract’s wording — is to milk the bejesus out of the port and line his billionaire’s pockets.

What happens to the remaining 97.5 percent of the port’s gross revenues? Matty has control of that, too.

So, Matty could actually reap more than 100 percent of port revenues. That’s because whenever he needs to invest in the port, he gets to charge the cost of construction or equipment or whatever to the port authority — that is you and me! — plus 6 percent interest.

Matty — excuse me, the port authority — uses the Nicholson Dock and Port Company to move freight, so-called “stevedoring” work. Matty gets to charge Nicholson “a percentage” of Nicholson’s revenues.

Whatever Matty wants, he gets.

Translated to the Master Concession Agreement lingo, “The Authority shall not unreasonably withhold the Authority’s consent to any Budget, Master Plan, Price Schedule, Operating Procedures or other proposals or requests of the Concessionaire.”

If Matty orders the authority to do something and it declines, it better be ready to defend its reasoning.

Nobody else can make such a request. Not you. Not me. That makes Matty the port authority’s one and only head.

As I said, Matty and the port are the same thing.

The port authority has 30 days to respond to Matty’s requests. If the authority fails to respond within 30 days, according to the contract, Matty gets his way.

The Authority can’t “pledge, sell, assign, let, lien, option” port authority property — public property! — without Matty’s permission.

The port authority gave up its right to sue Matty for breach of fiduciary trust.

Yes! Can you believe that?

In other words, Matty gets to screw them and they get to smile.

Public officials actually agreed to this language:

The Authority understands and acknowledges that master Concessionaire or its affiliates owns real property in and around the Premises that Master Concessionaire is interested in incorporating into the operations of the Facility and has agreed to perform the Facilities Work in part for the purpose of maximizing the value of such other properties and the profits to current and future business operating thereon. Preference shown to such other properties owned by master Concessionaire or its affiliates over the Facility shall not constitute a breach of any duty of Master Concessionaire hereunder or a breach of the Facility Operation Standard. The Authority, hereby waives any claim for breach of fiduciary duty or other cause of action in connection with any actions taken by Master Concessionaire or any Facility Operator whereby other property owned or controlled by them receives disproportionate benefits to the Facility. (Emphasis added)

The “emphasis added” was done by the author of the “confidential” contract, by the way, not by JOTR.

So what does the public get from this deal?

Not taxes: The contract exempts Matty from paying real estate taxes.

Matty’s whole purpose is “maximizing the value” of his own property, and if that happens to hurt the public, hey! It may have happened in secret, but we know this much — we got screwed.

Matty has the exclusive right to run a port in Wayne County.

Want to start a harbor at Detroit?

Fine, as long as you don’t mind Matty’s thumb on your business.

What if you wanted to spend a few hundred billion on a modern railroad tunnel under the Detroit River?

Great idea, as long as you don’t mind handing Matty the keys.

If the port authority wants to sell property to an outsider, first it has to offer the same deal to Matty.

Not surprisingly, the city council’s researchers had a few problems with this contract.

Homeowners, think about this: What would your mortgage-holder say if you failed to buy insurance on your house?

Matty’s got that base covered: “If insurance is not maintained by Master Concessionaire or the Facility Operator, such failure shall not constitute an independent cause of action and shall not result in liability of Master Concessionaire to the Authority or any other party for uninsured damages that may occur.”

If one of Matty’s trucks is full of dynamite and blows up, the port — that is, the public — can clean up the mess.

If Matty decides to assign his rights to run the port to someone else, the authority “can not unreasonably deny the Concessionaire’s request to assign its rights under the Agreement.”

Back in December, Gov. Snyder signed Public Act 258 of 2011 allowing a “public” agency like Matty Moroun — excuse me, I mean the port authority — to team up with a local government such as the city of Detroit or Wayne County to do pretty much any economic development project. In such a partnership, Matty would have the power to levy taxes, condemn property — eminent domain — as well as issue bonds. Matty, who runs ads excoriating government, could BE government, thanks to this new law and the Master Concession Agreement.

According to the city’s researchers, “The entire flavor of this Master Concession Agreement gives ‘preference’ to one business entity for the benefit of paying off the $2 million bonds. It also appears to render the Detroit/Wayne County Port Authority nearly constructively powerless to independently exercise its legal rights, duties and privileges.”

The contract “could relinquish control over the Authority’s options to finance current and future debts,” according to the researchers, who concluded:

“The Concessionaire could build a bridge, then bill the Authority.”

Hear that, guv??

Matty can build that new international bridge.

He doesn’t need you!

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Here it is: Matty’s Master Concession Agreement

By Joel Thurtell

A friend asked me to send him a copy of the nefarious Master Concession Agreement that sold control of the Detroit-Wayne County Port Authority to billionaire Manuel “Matty” Moroun for a pittance.

He wrote that he believed that the agreement was not subject to the Michigan Freedom of Information Act because every one of its 34 pages is marked CONFIDENTIAL

“I was wondering whether you have a copy of the agreement and if so would you be willing to send it to me in a pdf?  Of course, we would not say where we got it.”

Oh, please, please, tell the world I gave it to you!

Sure, the MCA is marked “CONFIDENTIAL” on every page. That is typical Matty Moroun bluff.

Like those fake “Homeland Security” signs he hung on the fence he installed around the section of Riverside Park that he stole from the city of Detroit.

The MCA is a public document subject to the Michigan FOIA.

Anyone can request it from the Port Authority.

But why bother?

You have it right here, again:

Master Concession Agreement





Posted in Bad government, Me & Matty | Leave a comment

Flint’s man-made water crisis: where are the watchdogs?

By Joel Thurtell

What a disaster the Flint water crisis has become. There was no need for tens of thousands of people to lose their publicly-provided source of clean drinking and bathing water. But government stupidity, folly, dishonesty made it so.

There was a time in Michigan history when it was easier for citizens to focus attention on toxic emergencies in spite of bumbling and deaf state agencies and a lackadaisical governor.

There was a time in Michigan history when environmental commissions overseen by citizen boards of directors provided an alternative route to enforcement for those of us with information about pollution.

I’m thinking of the Michigan Water Resources Commission, the Michigan Toxic Substance Control Commission, and most of all, the Michigan Environmental Review Board.

These commissions, and in particular the environmental review panel, also known as MERB, could be counted on to raise a stink if a citizen brought a legitimate complaint about government agencies’ refusal to take action on an environmental crisis.

I learned about the effectiveness of these agencies when I was a reporter with the South Bend Tribune. Late in 1982, I discovered while reading minutes of the Cass County Health Department, that three residential wells downstream from the city of Dowagiac’s municipal landfill were contaminated with unacceptable levels of the cancer-causing solvent, trichloroethylene. I soon learned that the industrial waste likely came from a Dowagiac factory.

As I reported, I found that officials of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources were unwilling to come clean on what they knew. I filed a Freedom of Information Act request and when a district DNR official let me read a stack of documents relating to Dowagiac industrial pollution, I learned why the officials were being disingenuous.

Contamination in household wells had been known to state officials since 1957. For years, DNR officials were fully aware of heavy metal contamination in household wells.

DNR people didn’t bother telling state or county health officials then, and when they learned of household well contamination by TCE in October of 1982, they failed to inform health officials at either the state or county level. State health officials learned of contamination when a union official complained that drinking water at the Sundstrand Heat Transfer plant was unsafe to drink.

Sound a little like Flint, where a Virginia researcher and a local pediatrician were the ones who first warned of lead in city mains? Those whistleblowers were scoffed at by state officials.

As I prepared a story for the March 13, 1983 South Bend Tribune, I called Michigan State University zoology Professor William Cooper, chairman of MERB. (Prof. Cooper, a former chairman of the MSU Zoology Department, died on November 7, 2011.)

Cooper called the Dowagiac pollution “an extreme situation.”

“You’ve got a hell of a problem,” Cooper told me. He put Dowagiac on the next week’s MERB meeting agenda. Soon, a state senator was involved. Next, Attorney General Frank Kelley sued Sundstrand. A judge ordered a clean-up. Then, a dozen or so homeowners with dangerously contaminated wells won a civil lawsuit against Sundstrand.

I had been writing about the pollution, but it took MERB and the bullhorn of Bill Cooper to raise state awareness.

Where is MERB when the people of Michigan and Flint need it?

What happened to this watchdog agency as well as the Toxic Substance Control Commission and the Water Resources Commission?

They were killed off by governors James Blanchard and John Engler.

In 2006, before I retired as a reporter with the Detroit Free Press, I spoke with Bill Cooper about the stifling of those watchdog agencies.

The environmental panels were created under Republican Governor William Milliken in the 1970s, Cooper told me. “One thing Milliken wanted was a public forum where citizens had standing without hiring a lawyer. That was the whole sense of the Environmental Review Board.’

“There is nothing in the state of Michigan that comes close to that now.”

Too bad for Flint and the entire state of Michigan that two governors were more interested in making government business-friendly than ensuring the safety of residents.

Drop me a line at joelthurtell(at)gmail.com



Posted in Adventures in history, Bad government, Joel's J School, Lakes and streams, Politics | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Calling Schuette’s shots

By Joel Thurtell

I complimented Free Press reporter Joe Guillen for dogging the billionaire Matty Moroun and his brazen takeover of the Detroit-Wayne County Port Authority. I was glad to see the Free Press report Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette’s refusal to render an opinion on the legality of the port authority’s giveaway contract with Matty.

But there was more to the story.

In the October 7, 2015 MetroTimes, Detroit journalist Jack Lessenberry came close to predicting that Schuette would decline to look into Matty’s deal. Schuette, Lessenberry pointed out, is notorious for ignoring cases he should look into while hyping issues that are none of his business, like President Obama’s deal limiting Iran’s nuclear program.

Lessenberry had his doubts whether Schuette would look into the port authority deal.

Follow the money, he said.

Wrote Lessenberry:

Rich Robinson, who runs the non-partisan, nonprofit Michigan Campaign Finance network, checked the records and reported that the Moroun family has given Schuette’s campaign fund at least $21,000 since he started running for attorney general five years ago. Matty also gave him $3,400 back in 2002, when Schuette wasn’t running for anything.

As Lessenberry also pointed out in his column that nearly four years ago, on February 1, 2012, I posted an article, MOROUNOPOLY, that explained in detail the lengths to which port authority officials went in genuflecting to the billionaire.

Public trust?

The port authority was a gift to Matty.

When mainstream media didn’t follow, I re-posted the article.

Again, silence.

In the meantime, Matty’s been sending checks to the attorney general.

Now the AG refuses to look into Matty.

That is not surprising.

What surprises me is that four years ago, the mainstream media didn’t think it was a story.

Even now, pieces of it still don’t appear in mainstream papers.

Thank you, Jack Lessenberry.

Matty’s donations to pols like Schuette are part of the story.




Posted in Bad government, Joel's J School, Me & Matty, People, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Good job, Free Press — keep the heat on Matty!

By Joel Thurtell

The Detroit Free Press reports that Michigan Attorney General William Schuette, without explanation, has declined to review the deal that gave billionaire Manuel “Matty” Moroun control of the Detroit/Wayne County Port Authority.

That is disgusting.

Kudos to Free Press reporter Joe Guillen for following this story.

And more kudos to Detroit-Wayne County Port Authority vice-chairman Jonathon Kinloch for trying to persuade Schuette to look into the deal.

Guillen reports, “The contract with the Ambassador Port Co, which could last another 90 years, has been a burden on the port, both financially and otherwise, as the Free Press reported in August.”

The Free Press reported on this in August! Yet the Master Concession Agreement was approved in 2005.

The story has been around for 10 years.

It was seven years old when I wrote about it on February 1, 2012: Morounopoly.

Possibly the story in 2012 lacked a hook or peg.

Somebody outside the newsroom expressing outrage.

Now, an official — port authority vice-chairman Kinloch — is asking questions.

And so is the Free Press.

Good work, Joe!




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Free Press memory hole

A memory hole is any mechanism for the alteration or disappearance of inconvenient or embarrassing documents, photographs, transcripts, or other records, such as from a website or other archive, particularly as part of an attempt to give the impression that something never happened. The concept was first popularized by George Orwell’s dystopian novel Nineteen Eight-Four, where the Party’s Ministry of Truth systematically re-created all potential historical documents, in effect, re-writing all of history to match the often-changing state propaganda. These changes were complete and undetectable.


By Joel Thurtell

“Complete and undetectable.”
That is probably what Detroit Free Press scribes thought they had accomplished when they changed the paper’s website to more accurately distort the facts contained in their October 1, 2015 article about massasauga rattlesnakes.
On October 2, 2015, I emailed a proposed letter that I hoped the Free Press would publish to correct important mistakes published in their article. I never heard from anyone at the Free Press.
But today, November 13, 2015, I called up the problem article and discovered that without notice, it had been corrected. Sort of.
The statement by a naturalist who claimed that no human had died of a massasauga bite in the last century has been scrubbed from the post. The article now reports that a child was injured by a massasauga bite in 2013. There is still no mention of deaths, although my letter informed the paper of four deaths due to massasauga bite since the 1930s. Furthermore, I showed the Free Press letters editors a letter published by the Free Press in 1989 reporting the death of a girl from massasauga bite. The letter, from a Grosse Pointe Woods woman, was sent to the Free Press in response to “Snakebit!,” an article researched and written by me and published in the Detroit Free Press magazine on July 29, 1989.
Had the present-day Free Press reporter done a little research in his own newspaper archive, he would have discovered my article. He might also have seen a September 5, 2013 USA Today article, originated at the Free Press, reporting the illness of a child bitten by a massasauga rattlesnake and now alluded to in the “corrected” website version of the Free Press October 1, 2015 article.
Why not tell people that massasauga venom  is second only to the Mojave rattler in toxicity? Why not admit that drop for drop, massasauga venom is more toxic that that of the Western Diamondback?
I’m talking public safety and public health. People need to know that, if disrespected,  these little reptiles can do serious harm and may even cause death.
Instead of doing spin control for the massasauga, the Free Press would do better to serve the humans who are its readers with the truth.
Here is the letter I emailed to the Free Press on October 2:

An October 1 Free Press article on eastern massasauga rattlesnakes gives the erroneous impression that a bite by one of these reptiles poses minimal risk to humans. A naturalist quoted in the article claims incorrectly that no human has died of a massasauga bite in the last 100 years.

On July 29, 1989, the Detroit Free Press Magazine published a cover story, “Snakebit!,” written by me. I reported that a retired professor of microbiology and immunology at the Indiana University Medical School in Indianapolis and an authority on snake venom, Sherman Minton, had compiled a list of four human deaths attributed to massasauga bites in the mid-twentieth century.

Massasauga venom is the second most toxic of 21 rattlesnake species. Massasauga venom is more potent than that of the Western Diamondback rattlesnake. That more people have not died or been seriously injured by massasaugas can be attributed to their reclusive personalities and the fact that these small snakes don’t pack as much venom as larger rattlers.

A Grosse Pointe Woods woman responded to my article, reporting that her cousin died of massasauga bites in Georgian Bay on July 17, 1962. “For years,” she wrote,”park rangers have given the snake great PR without mentioning that a bite can be lethal to humans.”

My article described how physicians’ ignorance about massasaugas nearly caused the death of a man who was bitten accidentally. Another man thought a rattler was harmless, picked it up and was bitten. He was hospitalized with a serious injury.

Naturalists and the media need to recognize that the bite of a massasauga rattlesnake can lead to serious illness and even death.

Joel Thurtell

The writer is a retired Detroit Free Press reporter

Posted in future of newspapers, Joel's J School, Uncategorized, Wildlife | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Seize the bridge! (Again)

By Joel Thurtell

Finally, somebody in mainstream media gets it. Matty Moroun’s privately-owned bridge to Canada is falling apart, he’s corrupted Michigan politics in hopes of torpedoing a publicly-owned bridge in favor of his family’s monopoly, he’s filed innumerable stupid lawsuits costing taxpayers millions, so why don’t the governments of Canada, Ontario, the United States and Michigan declare the bridge a public nuisance and take it?

Thank you, Jack Lessenberry!

“Seize the bridge!” was the gist of Jack’s talk on Michigan Radio this week.

Now for a pop history quiz: What Michigan blogger has urged public officials since 2009 to take Matty’s toy away from him?

Hint: Try googling “shotgun totin’ goon.”

I started my campaign to push Matty back shortly after one of his thugs chased me out of Detroit’s Riverside Park on September 22, 2008. My first aim was to eject the billionaire scofflaw out of the park. Take back what belongs to the people. After 9/11, Matty conspired with the felon mayor of Detroit, Kwame “Jailbait” Kilpatrick to steal the part of the park that he needed for his proposed new bridge. That, by the way, is the portion of the park that Detroit’s currently unconvicted mayor, Mike Duggan, so brainlessly dealt away to Matty last summer. (It was a move that Detroit’s media enthusiastically endorsed as smart politics on Mike’s part.) The media luminaries forgot how hard the city had to fight for more than three years in court to eject Matty from that piece of public land that he converted from shady basketball courts to a dump for his construction debris.

Seven years ago, on September 25, 2008, I wrote: “Why go to court? Give Matty the bum’s rush: Send a city work crew with bulldozers and dump trucks to tear down the fences and clear out the construction crap. Assign a couple dozen Special Weapons And Tactics cops with heavy artillery to guard the workers. Open up the boat ramp and invite people to bring their boats.”

Remember, I was harassed into leaving that piece of the park by none other than Matty’s hireling, a shotgun-totin’ goon named Doug. I learned that jackboots like Doug doing Matty’s bidding had been ejecting other people, including city park officials, from Riverside park. The story I wrote after my ejection from Riverside Park was the first of dozens of articles I wrote in a campaign to alert local media that this billionaire sociopath was stealing public property with impunity.

When I tried to report the shotgun totin’ goon to Detroit police, a desk officer told me, “Take it up with Mr. Moroun.” The city cop seemed to think Matty owned Detroit.

So on September 25, 2008, I continued, “I’ll bring my boat. I’d be honored to launch the “Slick” at Riverside Park. Then assign police to keep an eye on the park. If Matty tries to retake it, to close the ramp, to bring his crud back, why, just send a SWAT team in to push his bully boys out. Believe me, Doug and his gunslinger pals would wilt at the first sign the city means business.”

Then on May 14, 2009, I upped the ante in an essay, “Playing Matty’s Game.” I didn’t just call for taking back the park. I demanded that government authorities seize Matty’s beloved Ambassador Bridge:

Remember what JOTR said when this whole story surfaced last September? Why not send a city work crew with bulldozers, backhoes and a SWAT team to Riverside Park?

Tear down Matty’s fence.

Tear down Matty’s fraudulent Homeland Security “no trespassing” signs.

Replace those basketball courts.

Re-sod the area Matty tore up.

Once started, why stop with taking back the park?

Turn Matty’s medicine back on him. Send that SWAT team in to seize the bridge itself.

Lots of chatter about whether Matty has the power of eminent domain.

Surely, the government has the power to condemn private property, including a privately-owned international bridge.

I understand 40 percent of the freight passing between Canada and the U.S. goes by way of the Ambassador bridge.

The people need to own the bridge.

Seize it!

If Matty sends out his private army of shave-domed, shotgun-slingin’ hooligans, why hey — I kinda think Detroit cops could sent em packin.

If there’s a problem, maybe Wayne County Sheriff Warren Evans could lend a few deputies and even Gov. Jennifer Granholm could send in the National Guard.

Take the bridge. 

Wouldn’t that be great?

Number One thing a public owner would do? Have the bridge inspected for safety. That would be a first. That would lead, inevitably, to defusing the bomb under the bridge, i.e., dismantling those underground fuel storage tanks sitting under the bridge along with the 300,000 gallons of gasoline and diesel fuel that are the biggest security risk facing this bridge. (The fuel storage situation no longer exists.)

Number Two: According to law, no more hazardous material trucks on the bridge. That would be a first.

Number Three: Run the bridge as a public entity generating revenue for the public treasury. Another first.

Lastly, tell Matty if he wants his bridge back, he can sue.

Isn’t that kind of what Matty’s telling the city?

I just could not understand why government officials didn’t push Matty back. Why let him get away with his outlaw behavior? If I tried to steal a public park, I’d go to jail. So I said in a May 15, 2009 essay, “Who’s the Thug?” in which I again called for booting him from park land and seizing his bridge:

Was I promoting “thuggish” behavior by arguing that Detroit should run Matty Moroun out of a city park, part of which he seized illegally alongside his Ambassador Bridge?

I’ve suggested sending a city work crew with a SWAT team for protection in case there’s any resistance from his musclebound, shotgun totin’ goons.

A reader says I’m ignoring Matty’s right to due process.

It’s a twisted line of reasoning that turns Matty into the victim rather than the palpable perp that he is.

Let’s be clear about this: Manuel “Matty” Moroun, the billionaire trucking mogul who stole part of Detroit’s public Riverside Park, has no lease on the property he seized. He had no permission from the city to destroy backetball courts and play fields so he could store construction junk on city property.

He paid no rent over the several years that he illegally used the park.

Now, I ask you: If a few poor, homeless people set up a tent city in Riverside Park, how long would it take for the city of Detroit to send cops to bounce the interlopers and tear down their tents?

And if the tent people refused to leave, what do you think would happen?

They’d be arrested and tossed into jail.

They’d be charged with trespassing, obstructing justice, littering and a host of other infractions. If they destroyed city property, they’d be charged with malicious destruction of property.

Why not treat Matty the same way?

Squatters are squatters.

Oh, I know — Matty has legions of lawyers with nothing better to do than tie up government in long, drawn-out court battles.

Is that why he gets special treatment?

I say charge him with the same counts anybody else would face if they destroyed city property and used it illegally.

This could all be done through courts, and Matty would get more due process than he gave citizens like me who were chased out of Riverside Park by his thugs.

We had a right to be there.

Hey, I wonder if there are civil rights issues involved with Matty’s ouster of people peacefully and legitimately using a public park?

Why this case of Matty seizing park property is being pursued by the city as a landlord-tenant case baffles me.

He’s created a public nuisance. No need for eviction proceedings. Give him the bum’s rush.

Boot him, then condemn his beloved Ambassador Bridge under eminent domain laws. Pay him a fair price and convert it to a publicly-owned, operated and regulated bridge.

If his shave-headed guards put up resistance, send in a SWAT team from Detroit and let the Mounties take the Canadian side.

I wrote on September 22, 2009,” Send a SWAT team to run him off city property,  charge him and his minions with criminal trespass, declare the bridge a public nuisance due to the explosive automotive fuel he’s storing under it and seize it under eminent domain.”

I’ve been pushing this idea for a long time. Take the goddam bridge!

Don’t think Matty isn’t worried that someday a government will try to take his bridge. In an April 17, 2010 essay, “Faces of Matty,” I reported on a Metro Times story that quoted one of Moroun’s lawyers threatening to shoot city employees who might try to take back Riverside Park:

Echoing a sentiment expressed more than once on this blog, city attorney Eric Gaabo remarked that the government could stop being polite and abandon the court process, since it has the legal power to seize 23rd Street back from Matty.

According to the Metro Times, Matty’s lawyer, William Seikaly, had this to say about that:

It’s a good thing that didn’t happen, responded Seikaly, saying that if any city employees tried to tear down the fence they “would be met by armed guards. Probably somebody would be shot.”

Ain’t that sweet?

Probably somebody would be shot.

City workers trying to fence off city property would be attacked with firearms.

By Matty’s goons.

Which is to say, by Matty.

That doesn’t play well around me.

I was confronted by one of Matty’s goons on city property.

“Probably would be shot.”

Well, that goon had a shotgun.

When he tried to arrest me, I walked away.

When he tried to block my car with his pickup, I drove away.

Guess I’m lucky.

I’m lucky the goon didn’t shoot me.

That was the real face of Matty.

Sometime late in 2010, the Windsor Star urged governments to seize the Ambassador Bridge. My blog post report of the fact included a link to the Star editorial, but the connection no longer exists. But it happened — a print newspaper actually took up my cry. I reported the Star’s position on December 8, 2010: “Seize the bridge!”:

The Windsor Star has called on Canadian governments to nationalize the privately-owned Ambassador Bridge linking the U.S. and Canada.

About time somebody took this idea seriously.

Besides me.

Back on May 14, 2009, I argued that governments, using their power of eminent domain, simply condemn Matty Moroun’s beloved, lucrative and decrepit Ambassador Bridge. There’s not much leadership right now on the U.S. side, but if the Canadians took over that portion of the bridge that rests on their territory, it might build a fire under U.S. authorities. It might shame them into doing what’s right for the common good instead of playing the billionaire’s shoddy game.

One piece of advice I’d change. Instead of having the Canadian and U.S. governments operate the bridge, I’d suggest doing one of two things: 1) Tear it down as a public nuisance and replace it with the government-supported Detroit River International Crossing bridge; or 2) build the DRIC, but re-open the Ambassador as a theme park dedicated to the merits of PUBLIC transportation.

By December 11, 2010, Fox Channel 2 picked up the story. I received a visit from one of their news crews and in an essay, “Me & Matty & Fox 2,” I reported on their report:

Bill Gallagher of Fox 2 stopped by Plymouth a few days ago and we chatted about Matty Moroun alongside the city’s picturesque Kellogg Park.

Later in the day, Fox 2 aired parts of our interview:

I seemed to be butting heads with Dan Stamper, another Plymouth Township resident who’s president of the Detroit International Bridge Co., paper owner of the Ambassador Bridge linking Detroit in the U.S. with Windsor in Canada.

We know who the REAL owner of the bridge is.

Manuel “Matty” Moroun.

Here, as best I can recall, are the details of what I told Bill Gallagher:

If you or I decided maybe we’d pitch our tent in a city park and live there, how long do you think it would take Detroit police to run us out?

What if I went down to Riverside Park and tore down city-owned basketball courts and shade trees so I could use the site for a new money-making bridge for me while meantime storing construction debris where kids used to play basketball?

What if I put up a chain link fence to keep the public out of a public park?

Just to add insult to my actions, what if I hung phony “Homeland Security” signs from my illegal fence?

What if I hired security guards — shotgun totin’ goons — and had them run citizens out of this public park just because I wanted the place for my own money-grubbing pursuits?

What if I stole city property to build a duty-free store and gas station?

How long do you think it would be before a SWAT team hauled me off in handcuffs while bulldozers tore down the fence, trashed the signs and leveled my store?

Pronto is how fast it would happen.

If it were you or me we’d be jailed on charges of criminal trespassing.

But the perp is Matty Moroun, and Matty Moroun gets away with it.

The city’s been in court more than two years trying to evict this miscreant from a public park.

They’re in court now trying to make him raze that store and build according to plan.

But he’s Matty Moroun.

He’s a billionaire

He gets away with behavior that would put you and me behind bars.

You know what? Matty used to claim his bridge was a “federal instrumentality” with the power to seize property under eminent domain. The courts told him that’s baloney.

But I know a REAL federal instrumentality invested with the power to seize private property like Matty’s prized bridge.

It’s called the “federal government.”

Memo to Barack:

Take the bridge!



Posted in Bad government, Joel's J School, Me & Matty | Leave a comment

WSU reporters and Duggan: the rest of the story

By Joel Thurtell

You would think from reading the August 18, 2015 Detroit Free Press article about two Wayne State University student reporters who were stonewalled by Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan’s staff that the Free Press broke the story.

Thanks to Jack Lessenberry and Metro Times for noting the role of joelontheroad.

The story appeared here on May 22 – nearly three months before the Free Press published.

In my novel, CROSS PURPOSES, OR, IF NEWSPAPERS HAD COVERED THE CRUCIFIXION, a newshound opines that what newspapers refuse to print often is more interesting than what they publish.

I can’t explain why the Free Press chose not to report why WSU students Alexander Franzen and Timothy Carroll came to request records from the mayor. But I believe the story would have been more interesting if the newspaper had explained the background.

Why, for instance, did the students make two trips – May 12 and 14 – to the mayor’s office asking for the proposed Riverside Park land swap agreement between Duggan and Ambassador Bridge owner Manuel “Matty” Moroun?

Why, as the Free Press reported, did the student reporters not make their request for the agreement under the Michigan Freedom of Information Act instead of relying on a provision in the Michigan Penal Code few have heard of?

The student reporters were sent by me. I was their teacher. I am a retired Free Press reporter who has written extensively about Moroun since I left the paper eight years ago.

In May, I told the Free Press what happened to the WSU reporters. Later, I supplied their reporter the audio recording of the students’ encounter with Duggan’s staff that the Free Press published without attribution.

The Free Press noted that Duggan’s staffers told the reporters the agreement did not exist on paper and was merely “an idea.” The paper reported that the mayor’s staff lied to the students: the agreement did indeed exist and had been signed by the mayor. Those too were pieces of the story.

The Free Press chose not to explain why the students used the Penal Code instead of FOIA. And the paper didn’t mention that on May 22, the teacher – me — asked the Wayne County prosecutor to investigate this apparent violation of the Penal Code by Duggan’s staff and repeated the request on July 26. My request to the prosecutor contained a written request for an investigation written by the two reporters. The newspaper was aware that the prosecutor had declined to respond to my requests,but elected not to mention those facts. (There is still no response from the prosecutor.)

What was I thinking? Why did I send student reporters to Duggan’s office? Why use the Penal Code instead of FOIA?

Back in May, I was at Wayne State teaching a journalism class, Communications 5310. COM 5310 is unusual. Instead of having 15 weeks to study and produce, students have one week: eight-to-five Monday through Friday for 40 hours, plus five hours of homework equals 45 hours.

When your class is over in five days, May 11-15, the 15-day delay built into FOIA makes that law useless.

But there is the Michigan Penal Code. The Penal Code requires that public officials turn over records upon request during normal office hours. If the officials refuse to comply, they can be imprisoned for up to a year or fined $1,000.

The Penal Code — a disclosure law with teeth!

I have never encountered another journalist familiar with the penal code’s public record clause. But faced with five days to finish an investigation, it seemed worth trying.

When I agreed to teach COM 5310, I wondered what the class project should be. Whatever the topic, it needed to concern Wayne State or Detroit, and it needed to be compelling.

Then, on April 29, Mayor Duggan announced his land swap deal with Matty Moroun.

I first wrote about Riverside Park on September 22, 2008, when I reported Matty’s ambition of swapping land to acquire a piece of park he needs to build a replacement span for his Ambassador Bridge. Now here was Mike Duggan agreeing to make Matty’s dream real. The issue was controversial. It affects Detroit, the region and has international implications.

Thank you, Mike Duggan. We had our project.

I wrote in the COM 5310 syllabus:


This one-week intensive class will focus on techniques and tactics of investigative reporting. Part classroom, part newsroom, students will work on a real investigative project with local, state, national and international overtones.

Forty hours of class time multiplied by seven students is 280 hours of time that we can use to conduct an investigation. The focus of the course will be Mayor Duggan’s recent proposal to swap land from Detroit’s Riverside Park to Ambassador Bridge owner Matty Moroun in return for nearby land owned by Moroun.

Now that we had our focus, how would we get records? In the syllabus, I continued:

In a five-day class, there is no time to file Freedom of information Act requests that allow government officials 15 days to respond. Instead, our tools will be the Michigan Constitution, which requires that officials disclose financial records on demand; and the Michigan Penal Code, which makes it a crime for public officials to refuse to disclose public records.

Given that the Penal Code was largely unknown to journalists, our use of that law would test a novel use of a little-known law meant to help citizens get access to public records.

This is how I explained the class in an email to the Free Press’s Joe Guillen:

I envisioned the class use of the Penal Code as an experiment that would run parallel to our investigation of the park agreement. What would happen if we requested information through the Penal Code rather than through FOIA? If this were truly an experiment, we could not confuse matters by using two request formats. We needed to stick to the Penal Code alone if we wanted uncontaminated results.

Had we filed FOIA requests while invoking the Penal Code, we might not know which technique led to success or failure. Moreover, FOIA would give officials an escape route away from the threat of criminal action contained in the Penal Code.

It appears that Duggan’s people are retroactively trying to use that escape hatch by saying that no FOIA request was made. My response: no FOIA request was necessary. The students made their request under a different law, the Penal Code.

The results so far of this experiment have been fascinating. We have detected Duggan’s staff blowing off student reporters with the lie that the documents did not exist. Now the officials say the students should have filed a FOIA request for what were claimed to be non-existent records.

The Penal Code is a law separate from the Freedom of Information Act. It does not mention written requests. It does not mention deadlines and reasons why officials might procrastinate or stonewall. It simply says, turn the records over upon request, or face criminal action.

So far, the prosecutor has ignored my request for her to investigate. Her behavior shows the weakness of the Penal Code as a tool for obtaining documents. While FOIA provides document requesters a way to challenge officials in court, the Penal Code provides only criminal sanctions and thus relies on the good will of a county prosecutor to challenge a denial.

I told Joe Guillen:

The experiment continues: Does a state law requiring immediate disclosure of public records with criminal penalties for refusal have any meaning?

Drop me a line at joelthurtell(at)gmail.com











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