By Jon Brodkin
January 14, 2021
Former Michigan Governor Rick Snyder and eight other officials have been indicted on criminal charges related to their handling of the Flint water crisis. Snyder was charged with two counts of willful neglect of duty, which are misdemeanor charges that can each be punished by up to a year in prison and a $1,000 fine.
“When an entire city is victimized by the negligence and indifference of those in power, it deserves an uncompromising investigation that holds to account anyone who is criminally culpable,” Michigan Solicitor General Fadwa Hammoud said at a press conference today. “We must remember that the Flint water crisis is not some relic of the past. At this very moment, the people of Flint continue to suffer from the categorical failure of public officials at all levels of government, who trampled upon their trust and evaded accountability for far too long.”
The charges against Snyder are “for willfully neglecting his mandatory legal duties under the Michigan Constitution and Emergency Management Act, thereby failing to protect the health and safety of Flint’s residents,” Hammoud said.
“Nobody, no matter how powerful or well-connected, is above accountability when they commit a crime,” she also said, adding that “we may never know all the names of those who had their lives and livelihoods destroyed by this man-made crisis.”
Officials said they could not comment on any of the evidence supporting the indictments today because of state law prohibiting sharing of testimony, evidence, and information used in connection with a grand jury probe. Evidence would be presented publicly later in court proceedings.
Snyder pleads not guilty
Snyder, 62, pleaded not guilty via Zoom in an arraignment in the 67th District Court of Genesee County today. He served as governor from 2011 to 2019 and was prevented from seeking a third term because of term limits.
“Three Michigan attorneys who practice criminal law said the misdemeanor charges against Snyder are a surprise and that the length of time that has lapsed could make getting any conviction against Snyder a challenge,” the Detroit Free Press wrote yesterday. “But all three said that even securing a misdemeanor conviction could allow a judge to issue a significant restitution order against Snyder, a multi-millionaire who made a fortune in computers and venture capital before he was elected Michigan governor in 2010.”
“In not bringing a felony charge, ‘restitution would be the objective,’ [St. Clair Shores attorney Craig] Tank said,” according to the Free Press. “‘Everyone in the state of Michigan recognizes that the man has deep pockets.'”
Snyder’s attorney, Brian Lennon, said that a criminal case would be “outrageous” and that “we believe there is no evidence to support any criminal charges against Gov. Snyder,” the Associated Press reported.
The Flint water crisis began in 2014 “when the city switched its drinking water supply from Detroit’s system to the Flint River in a cost-saving move,” as noted by the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Inadequate treatment and testing of the water resulted in a series of major water quality and health issues for Flint residents—issues that were chronically ignored, overlooked, and discounted by government officials even as complaints mounted that the foul-smelling, discolored, and off-tasting water piped into Flint homes for 18 months was causing skin rashes, hair loss, and itchy skin.”
Eight more defendants
All nine defendants and their charges are listed in this announcement by the Michigan attorney general’s office. Links to the indictment documents are available here. The indictments came from “a one-man grand jury” consisting of Circuit Court Judge David Newblatt, the announcement said.
Besides Snyder, the defendants are as follows:
- Jarrod Agen, former director of communications and chief of staff for Snyder, was charged with one count of perjury, a felony that can be punished with a 15-year prison sentence. (Agen is currently a spokesperson for Lockheed Martin and also formerly served as director of communications and deputy chief of staff for Vice President Mike Pence.)
- Gerald Ambrose, former Flint Emergency Manager, was charged with four counts of misconduct in office, each a five-year felony and/or a $10,000 fine.
- Richard Baird, former transformation manager and senior adviser for Snyder, was charged with one count of perjury (a 15-year felony), one count of official misconduct in office (a five-year felony and/or $10,000 fine), one count of obstruction of justice (a five-year felony and/or $10,000 fine), and one count of extortion (a 20-year felony and/or $10,000 fine).
- Howard Croft, former Director of the Flint Department of Public Works, was charged with two counts of willful neglect of duty, misdemeanors that can be punished by one year in prison and/or a $1,000 fine.
- Darnell Earley, former Flint emergency manager, was charged with three counts of misconduct in office, each a five-year felony and/or $10,000 fine.
- Nicolas Lyon, former director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, was charged with nine counts of involuntary manslaughter, each a 15-year felony and/or $7,500 fine. Lyon was also charged with one count of willful neglect of duty, a one-year misdemeanor and/or $1,000 fine.
- Nancy Peeler, the current Early Childhood Health Section Manager for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, was charged with two counts of misconduct in office, each a five-year felony and/or $10,000 fine; and one count of willful neglect of duty, a one-year misdemeanor and/or $1,000 fine.
- Eden Wells, former Chief Medical Executive of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, was charged with nine counts of involuntary manslaughter, each a 15-year felony and/or $7,500 fine; two counts of misconduct in office, each a five-year felony and/or $10,000 fine; and one count of willful neglect of duty, a one-year misdemeanor and/or $1,000 fine.
“Our approach was simple—where we believed the evidence would prove a criminal charge, we sought and obtained indictments for those crimes,” Hammoud said.
Obstruction of justice
Though evidence was not presented publicly, Hammoud elaborated slightly on the charges in the press conference. For example, Baird’s charge of obstruction of justice was “for attempting to interfere or influence ongoing legal proceedings related to the Flint water crisis,” and his extortion charge was “for threatening a state-appointed research team during their investigation into the source of the Legionnaires’ disease outbreak in Genesee County,” she said.
The misconduct charges against Wells were for “two separate incidents of preventing or attempting to prevent the distribution of public health information about Legionnaires’ disease in Genesee County,” Hammoud said. Peeler’s charges related to “concealing and later misrepresenting data related to elevated blood lead levels of children in Flint,” and “failure to act upon information of those elevated blood levels,” she said.
Earley was charged “for acts related to Flint’s finances and misinformation about the quality and safety of the Flint water supply,” she said. Croft was charged “for willfully neglecting his duty to ensure the safety and quality of Flint’s water supply,” she said. Lyon was charged for his “grossly negligent performance of his legal duties” to protect the health of residents, she said.
All nine defendants turned themselves into Genesee County Jail and were arraigned, Hammoud said. Snyder and Croft’s next scheduled court date is January 19, and the other defendants’ next scheduled court date is February 18, she said.
* This article was automatically syndicated and expanded from Ars Technica.
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