Politics & Policy

Lack of Dem Indictments in Flint Water Probe Raises Concerns about Political Prosecution

Former Michigan Governor Rick Snyder exits after video arraignment on two counts of willful neglect of duty over the lead-poisoning of drinking water in Flint at the Genesee County Jail in Flint, Mich., January 14, 2021. (Ryan Garza/Detroit Free Press/USA TODAY NETWORK via Reuters)

The absence of any elected Democrats among the officials indicted this month for their respective roles in the Flint water crisis has led to concerns that the charging decisions were motivated by political considerations.

Nine people, including former Michigan governor Rick Snyder, a Republican, were criminally charged in connection with the public health crisis in Flint, Mich., which wreaked havoc on the impoverished city from 2014 to 2019.

The crisis began after Flint changed its water source in April 2014 in order to save money, switching from treated water from the Detroit area to water from the Flint River.

Throughout 2014 and 2015, levels of lead, bacteria, and chlorination by-products rose in Flint’s drinking water, causing more than 100,000 residents to be exposed to the toxins, which seeped into the water from aging pipes. Doctors have since detected elevated lead levels in hundreds of children, and residents were forced to drink bottled or filtered water for months.

The most severe of the criminal charges were leveled against Nick Lyon, the former director of Michigan’s health department, who faces nine counts of involuntary manslaughter, each with a sentence of 15 years, over the deaths of nine people who developed Legionnaire’s disease, thought to have come from bacteria in the Flint water.

Snyder was charged with two counts of neglect of duty under the Michigan constitution, one count “by failing to inquire into the performance, condition and administration of the public offices and officers that he appointed and was required to supervise,” and another count he incurred “by failing to declare a state of emergency and/or disaster” in Flint after he was made aware of the water crisis. The charges are punishable by up to a year in jail.

The indictments came from a one-man grand jury, David Newblatt, a Genesee County family division judge elected in 2005 to the 7th Circuit Court. Newblatt was appointed by chief judge Duncan Beagle last year at the petition of the Flint prosecution.

Jim Haveman, who directed the state’s health department before Lyon, said he believes those charged are victims of a political prosecution seeking to criminalize well-intentioned public officials who simply miscalculated.

Meanwhile, Democrats who were heavily criticized for their role in responding to the crisis have escaped charges. No one at either the Environmental Protection Agency or the health department in Genesee County, where Flint is located, was charged. Emails between Genesee County health officials and the Michigan health department show that county officials were slow to inform the healthcare community about the Legionnaire’s outbreak.

Former Flint mayor Karen Weaver, a Democrat who took office after the emergency struck, faulted former EPA administrator Gina McCarthy for taking months to respond to the water crisis after she was alerted to it. Weaver said she is disappointed that President Joe Biden has tapped McCarthy to head his new White House Office of Climate Policy.

“You want to talk about climate change, but what about environment justice?” Weaver said of McCarthy in an interview with the MLive-The Flint Journal last month, adding that the water crisis “happened on your watch. You played a major role in Flint being poisoned.”

The EPA’s inspector general said in October 2016 that the water crisis should have prompted “a greater sense of urgency” at the EPA to “intervene when the safety of drinking water is compromised.”

McCarthy herself appeared to agree, admitting later that the EPA dropped the ball in the early months of the water crisis.

“In hindsight, we should not have been so trusting of the state for so long,” McCarthy said during congressional testimony in March 2017. “We missed the opportunity to quickly get EPA’s concerns on the radar screen. That, I regret.”

Critics of the investigation and charging decisions have also unearthed a potential conflict of interest close to Michigan attorney general Dana Nessel, a Democrat.

Nessel’s current communications director, public relations expert Kelly Rossman-McKinney, represented the utility company Veolia during the water crisis. Internal company emails show that Veolia executives were aware in early 2015 that lead could be leaching into the drinking water. Veolia executives argued in the emails that city officials should be informed about the water issue and should change Flint’s water supply, but the company, which was seeking other contracts with the city at the time, never publicly issued that recommendation.

In 2019, after Rossman-McKinney began representing the attorney general, Nessel dropped criminal charges against two defendants, former Flint emergency managers, for whom Rossman-McKinney had previously consulted.

Michigan finally declared a public health emergency and switched back to the Detroit water system in October 2015, more than a year after switching to the new tainted water supply. The EPA declared an emergency three months later.

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