Top state government officials charged in Flint water and Legionnaire's Disease crisis

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At the press conference announcing the most recent charges resulting from the Flint water criris, Special Counsel Todd Flood, Attorney General Bill Schuette, Genesee County Prosecutor David Leyton, and Chief Investigator Andy Arena shared the microphone.

LEGAL NEWS PHOTOS BY CYNTHIA PRICE

by Cynthia Price
Legal News

In what he termed a “significant milestone” in the Attorney General office’s investigation into the Flint water crisis, AG Bill Schuette announced he is charging the Director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Nick Lyon with involuntary manslaughter and misconduct in office.

“Mr. Lyon failed in his responsibilities to protect the health and safety of the citizens of Flint. After allegedly being informed of the growing legionella situation in Flint, Nick Lyon failed to inform the public of this health threat,” Schuette said at a press conference Wednesday.

Other new charges include those for Eden Wells, Chief Medical Officer  of Michigan – obstruction of justice and lying to a peace officer.

The very serious charge of involuntary manslaughter has also been added to previous charges against former Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) District 8 Water Supervisor Stephen Busch, Chief of the Office of Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance at MDEQ Liane Shekter-Smith, Flint Director of Public Works Howard Croft, and Flint Emergency Manager Darnell Earley. (Titles given indicate the positions people filled at the time of the water crisis events.)

Joining Schuette at the press conference in Flint were other members of the  investigative team: Todd Flood, a former Wayne County Prosecutor named Special Counsel to the investigation;
Genesee County Prosecutor David Leyton; and Chief Investigator Andy Arena, who was formerly with the FBI?and Special Agent in Charge of its Detroit office.

AG Schuette also acknowledged the assistance of retired Judge of the Ionia  Circuit Court David Hoort and former Chief Judge of the Michigan Court of Appeals William C. Whitbeck.

“This is difficult, but it’s where the evidence led us,” said Flood grimly. “There are no winners here.”

Basically, charges against Lyon stem from allegations that he had knowledge about the outbreak of Legionnaire’s Disease that occurred in mid-2014 not later than January 2015 (and possibly before), and deliberately failed to let the public know about it.

The filings claim that had he done so, the second outbreak in 2015 would not have claimed the life of Robert Skidmore, whose death investigators chose from among many because it is a clear-cut example.

The implication is that failures all along the line to acknowledge and take responsibility for the mistakes made regarding Flint water – switching to the Flint River as an interim source, the decision not to treat the water with anti-corrosion chemicals, and others – resulted in extending the catastrophic damage, and were preventable.

In Lyon’s case, as well as in that of Eden Wells, that factors in because, the filings claim, the decision not to publicize the Legionnaire’s Disease outbreak was due to political considerations. Specifically, there was an alleged desire not to have the outbreak linked back to the tainted water. (“Outbreak” has a very specific definition in public health, which fit the circumstances and had caught the attention of the national Centers for Disease Control as far back as April 2015.)

Both Lyon and Wells allegedly attempted to interfere with research by Shawn McElmurray and a Wayne State University team on the relationship.

Though the filings declare an intention to call witnesses to testify that there is a strong possibility the water caused the outbreak, public documents indicate that whether or not the link is made, fears about it played an overriding role in not releasing the information.

“The health crisis in Flint has created a trust crisis in Michigan government, exposing a serious lack of confidence in leaders to accept responsibility and solve problems,” said Schuette.

He, along with Flood and Arena, stressed that the release of the current Interim Report (available at www.michigan.gov/documents/ag/Flint+Water+Interim+Report_575711_7.pdf), is not an indication that there will be no further charges. Schuette said that the report marks the beginning of a “prosecutorial phase,” but he and the others promised that they will continue to follow the evidence where it leads.

Schuette also said that Gov. Snyder declined their request for an interview, though Schuette would not elaborate.

On Thursday, Snyder issued a statement on the matter: “Nick Lyon has been a strong leader at the Department of Health and Human Services for the past several years and remains completely committed to Flint's recovery. Director Lyon and Dr. Eden Wells... are presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt... They have my full faith and confidence, and will remain on duty at DHHS.”

The AG team’s report itself is straightforward about the failures which led to the Flint crisis. “A cause of the breakdown in state governmental management was a fixation, a preoccupation, with data, finances and costs, instead of placing the health, safety and welfare of citizens first. For $200 per day, an anti-corrosive treatment... would have effectively coated the water pipes and prevented the leaching of lead...,” the report states.

The authors also note the report is in full compliance with Michigan Rules of Professional Conduct on trial publicity, serving the public’s right to know about “threats to its safety and measures aimed at assuring its security.”
 

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