Michigan plans to charge ex-governor in Flint contaminated water probe

Michigan plans to charge ex-governor in Flint contaminated water probe

January 13, 2021

Detroit: The former governor of the US state of Michigan, Rick Snyder, his health director and other ex-officials have been told they’re being charged after a new investigation of the Flint water scandal, which devastated the majority black city with lead-contaminated water and was blamed for a deadly outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in 2014-15.

Two people with knowledge of the planned prosecution said that the Attorney-General’s office had informed defence lawyers about indictments in Flint and told them to expect initial court appearances soon. They spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to speak publicly.

Volunteers load cases of water into vehicles in Flint, Michigan, in April.Credit:The Flint Journal/AP

The AP could not determine the nature of the charges against Snyder, former health department director Nick Lyon and others who were in his administration, including Rich Baird, a friend who was the governor's key troubleshooter while in office.

Courtney Covington Watkins, a spokeswoman for the office, said only that investigators were “working diligently” and “will share more as soon as we’re in a position to do so.”

Snyder’s lawyer, Brian Lennon, released a blistering statement, saying a criminal prosecution would be “outrageous”. He said state prosecutors have refused to “share information about these charges with us.”

No matter what issue you care about, the electoral system is at the heart of it, said a protester in Flint, Michigan, in 2016.Credit:AP

“Rather than following the evidence to find the truth, the Office of Special Counsel appears to be targeting former governor Snyder in a political escapade,” Lennon said.

Snyder, a Republican who has been out of office for two years, was governor when state-appointed managers in Flint switched the city’s water to the Flint River in 2014 as a cost-saving step while a pipeline was being built to Lake Huron. The water, however, was not treated to reduce corrosion — a disastrous decision affirmed by state regulators that caused lead to leach from old pipes and spoil the distribution system used by nearly 100,000 residents.

The disaster made Flint an American symbol of governmental mismanagement, with residents lining up for bottled water and parents fearing that their children had suffered permanent harm. Lead can damage the brain and nervous system and cause learning and behaviour problems. The crisis was highlighted as an example of environmental injustice and racism.

At the same time, bacteria in the water was blamed for an outbreak of Legionnaires’. Legionella bacteria can emerge through misting and cooling systems, triggering a severe form of pneumonia, especially in people with weakened immune systems. Authorities counted at least 90 cases in Genesee County, including 12 deaths.

The outbreak was announced by Snyder and Lyon in January 2016, although Lyon conceded that he knew that cases were being reported many months earlier.

Former Michigan governor Rick Snyder.Credit:AP

In 2018, Lyon was ordered to stand trial on involuntary manslaughter charges after a special prosecutor accused him of failing to timely inform the public about the outbreak. His attorneys argued there was not enough solid information to share earlier with the public.

By June 2019, the entire Flint water investigation was turned upside down after more than three years and millions of dollars. Prosecutors working under a new attorney general, Dana Nessel, dismissed the case against Lyon as well as charges against seven more people and said the probe would start anew.

The decision didn't affect seven people who had already pleaded no contest to misdemeanours. They cooperated with investigators and their records were eventually scrubbed clean.

Testimony at court hearings had raised questions about when Snyder knew about the Legionnaires' outbreak. His urban affairs adviser, Harvey Hollins, told a judge that the governor was informed on Christmas Eve 2015. But Snyder had told reporters three weeks later, in January 2016, that he had just learned about it.

Baird's attorney, Randy Levine, said he was informed Monday that his client would face charges.

"When the Flint water crisis hit, he wasn’t assigned by governor Snyder to go to Flint, but rather he raised his hand and volunteered," Levine said.


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