Wayne County Judge Prentis Edwards said Manuel "Matty" Moroun and top lieutenant Dan Stamper will stay in jail until they comply with a 2010 order to get the work going. It's unclear how long they'll be behind bars after an appeals court hours later refused to suspend the decision and release them.
"It is clear that the Detroit International Bridge Co. does not intend to comply with the court orders unless meaningful sanctions are imposed," Edwards said.
Lawyers for Moroun and Stamper asked Edwards to freeze his decision while they appeal, but the judge declined.
Ken Mogill, lawyer for Stamper, said the judge was "absolutely wrong" since it is the company, not the men, that was earlier found in contempt.
"Neither Mr. Moroun nor Mr. Stamper had received a notice that they individually could be facing consequences," Mogill said. "It's not enough that a company has been found in contempt. The law is so clear."
The bridge company also must pay $7,500, the maximum under state law for civil contempt, and the state's legal fees.
Moroun, listed by Forbes magazine as a billionaire, and Stamper were escorted out of the courtroom by deputies. After getting an emergency request, the Michigan Court of Appeals declined to release them while the broader case is appealed.
The three-judge panel said attorneys cited the wrong law in their filings, although one of the judges was in favour of granting a stay and freeing the men.
"We are disappointed the court denied the emergency motion," Alan Upchurch of Marx Layne & Co. said in an email on behalf of the bridge company. "Everyone should be accorded due process of law and have the opportunity to respond to clearly stated charges, and that was not the case with Judge Edwards' decision."
Upchurch said the company believes the appeal ultimately will succeed.
Moroun's son, Matthew Moroun, accused Edwards of having a "personal vendetta" against the bridge executives.
"A judge viciously lashed out at Matty Moroun and Dan Stamper and ordered a penalty outside the bounds of a civil case that was excessive, unwarranted and outrageous," the younger Moroun said in a statement.
Detroit International Bridge Co. was declared in contempt of court in November for failing to finish work on the project linking the U.S.-Canada span with two Detroit interstates.
The state of Michigan sued the company after it failed to meet a 2008 deadline to finish its part of a $230 million project to improve traffic at the bridge connecting Detroit to Windsor, Ontario. The company claims the Department of Transportation repeatedly has changed construction plans and been obstructive, allegations the state denies.
Gregory Johnson, MDOT chief of operations, said it could take a year to get the work done.
"We take no joy or satisfaction in seeing these gentlemen incarcerated," Johnson said. "Our only goal is to see this contract, this project, completed."
The hearing began with lawyers for Moroun insisting he is not the real owner. They say a Moroun trust has a minority stake in a holding company that owns the bridge. But state officials say Moroun clearly is in charge, and the judge agreed.
"Mr. Moroun has the power, the authority to make sure there is compliance" with court orders, Edwards said.
After a November hearing, state engineer Tony Kratofil said the bridge company has done only "superficial" work to follow the judge's previous orders. Without the improvements, he said, trucks are stuck using neighbourhood roads.
Kratofil said Thursday there's still a lack of progress on the project. The judge said he considered appointing a receiver or contractor to oversee the project but determined it would only lead to more delays and litigation.
An activist in the residential neighbourhood near the bridge complimented Edwards.
"This is a win for the people," Scott Brines said. "This is not about people going to jail. It's about bringing a solution to get trucks off of our neighbourhood streets, as the Gateway development was intended to do."