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Moroun Joined International Cast of Billionaires Behind Bars

Manuel “Matty” Moroun was led from a Detroit courtroom into rare company: billionaires who have gone to jail.

The owner of the Ambassador Bridge between Detroit and Canada, is to be released today after being jailed yesterday for missing a court’s deadlines to build new bridge approaches. He has been in a two-year dispute with the state over the $230 million project’s design.

“It’s unusual to see an 84-year-old billionaire carted off to jail,” said Larry Dubin, law professor at the University of Detroit Mercy. “It’s not your usual person found in civil contempt. It’s usually someone who doesn’t have enough money to make child-support payments.”

Moroun’s 82-year-old bridge is a source of controversy in Michigan. He spent $4.7 million on a campaign with television advertising against a state plan to build a second Detroit-Canada bridge about two miles downstream, according to the Michigan Campaign Finance Network. The new span would siphon off truck traffic from Moroun’s property. The plan, pushed by Republican Governor Rick Snyder, died in a Republican-controlled state Senate committee in October.

Bill Ballenger, publisher of Lansing-based Inside Michigan Politics, said he “can’t believe” Moroun was jailed.

“Either his attorneys were inept, or maybe the judge got a little overly aggressive,” Ballenger said. “It’s baffling to the public what’s going on.”

Chicken-Fried Steak

Wayne County Circuit Judge Prentis Edwards also jailed Dan Stamper, president of Moroun's Detroit International Bridge Co., which controls the Ambassador Bridge. His and Moroun’s jailing before a packed courtroom dominated television news in the state and commanded blaring headlines in its newspapers. The prisoners wore green fatigues and were offered chicken-fried steak for dinner, according to the Detroit Free Press.

The Michigan Court of Appeals ruled today that Moroun and Stamper may be released, Al Upchurch, an executive of the bridge company, said.

Their jailing was “excessive, unwarranted and outrageous,” Moroun’s son, Matthew Moroun, said in a statement yesterday. Still Moroun, whose wealth Forbes estimated at $1.7 billion in 2011, joined a roster of seven-figure luminaries who served time:

Rich and Imprisoned

-- Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Russia’s richest man when he was arrested on the tarmac of a Siberian airport in 2003, was convicted of fraud and tax evasion in 2005 and again in December 2010 on related charges, in what he calls a politically motivated campaign. He’s serving a 13-year sentence.

-- Former Sotheby’s Holdings Inc. Chairman A. Alfred Taubman, who was sentenced in April 2002 to one year in federal prison for conspiring with Christie’s International Plc to fix commissions on art, antiques, and other valuables. He was 78 at the time. Taubman was released in June 2003, according to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons website.

-- Texas billionaire Oscar Wyatt, then 83, was sentenced in 2007 to 12 months and one day in prison for his role in bribing Iraqi oil officials in the most significant prosecution in the United Nations oil-for-food case.

-- Raj Rajaratnam, co-founder of hedge fund company Galleon Group LLC, is serving an 11-year prison sentence for insider trading.

-- Huang Guangyu, founder of Gome Electrical Appliances Holding Ltd. and once China’s richest person, is serving 14 years for insider trading and bribery, sentenced at age 41.

Dubin, the law professor, said he was surprised by the judge’s decision to jail the men.

“It’s a moment where everyone realizes that being bound by a court order applies to everyone, whether you’re penniless and can’t make child support, or you’re a billionaire and can’t comply with a more substantial court order,” Dubin said.

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