Lansing — Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette is bringing on some high-profile hired guns to help investigate Flint’s water crisis and create a firewall as his office also defends the state in lawsuits brought by Flint residents.
Schuette on Monday announced that former Wayne County Assistant Prosecutor Todd Flood will serve as special counsel for the Flint probe. Retired Detroit FBI Chief Andrew Arena will help investigate.
The appointments will help create an “iron-clad conflict wall” between the investigation and civil lawsuits, according to the Republican attorney general, whose announcement was met by pushback from Democrats, who continue to question Schuette’s ability to represent the people of Flint with impartiality.
Schuette launched the investigation Jan. 15, vowing to determine whether any state laws had been broken in the beleaguered city, where residents continue to rely on bottled and filtered water after the discovery of elevated lead levels in the tap water and the blood of some children.
“This investigation will be thorough, this investigation will be exhaustive, and this investigation will be independent,” he said in a Monday press conference in his Lansing office, where he was joined by Flood and Arena. “This investigation is about beginning the road back — the road back to rebuild and to regain and to restore trust in government.”
Schuette said Chief Deputy Attorney General Carol Isaacs and Chief Legal Counsel Matthew Schneider will defend the governor, state and departments in class-action lawsuits filed on behalf of Flint residents. Flood and Arena will lead the Flint investigation, which could potentially lead to civil or criminal action.
“Reputations are earned, and Todd and Andy have excellent reputations,” Schuette said. “These two very smart and very aggressive individuals will report directly to me.”
Flood spent 10 years in the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office on the homicide, drug house and trial units, according to his website. He’s now a private practice attorney based in Royal Oak.
State records show Flood donated $3,000 to Republican Gov. Rick Snyder’s gubernatorial campaigns in 2010 and 2014, prompting an outcry from Democrats who have questioned Snyder’s handling of the Flint crisis. He also gave $1,200 to former Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm in 2004-05.
Michigan Democratic Party Chairman Brandon Dillon called Schuette’s appointments “incomprehensible.”
"The people of Flint deserve a truly independent investigation, not one spearheaded by a major Republican donor that has given thousands of dollars to Governor Snyder and has business entanglements that could present serious conflicts of interest,” Dillon said in a statement.
Flood, noting he has donated to candidates on both sides of the aisle, told reporters his past political giving will not affect his ability to lead the independent investigation. He has set up “proper walls and channels” in his private practice and consulted with an ethics attorney, he said.
“I don’t have a bias or a prejudice one way or another,” Flood said. “A contribution to an individual person at the time they ran for office is not going to sway me one way or another in this investigation. The chips fall where they may.”
Schuette said he did not care whether Flood had given to Republicans or Democrats, saying his job is to be an attorney for the citizens of Michigan regardless of political stripe. He did not say how long the investigation will take or how much his office will pay Flood and Arena.
Arena, who retired from the FBI in 2012 and now leads the Detroit Crime Commission, spent more than two decades with the agency and oversaw the corruption probe of former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick.
“The attorney general in an earlier meeting said this is going to be a Joe Friday kind of investigation,” Arena said, referencing a character from the “Dragnet” television series. “So I’m Joe Friday.”
The first step of an investigation “should be to “assemble a top rate team, and we’ve already started that,” said Arena, noting that he has selected Flint native and former state police inspector Ellis Stafford to work with him.
“The facts will lead us to the truth. We go into this with no predisposition, no preconceptions,” Arena said.
The attorney general’s office created a similar firewall in Detroit’s 2014 bankruptcy case, tapping Schneider as lead counsel for the state while Schuette also interjected on behalf of pensioners.
Civil lawsuits filed against the state on behalf four Flint families allege the health and environmental quality departments “sat on” evidence of lead contamination for months and failed to alert the public to a possible link between drinking water and an outbreak of deadly Legionnaires’ disease.
Schuette had declined an earlier request for a Flint investigation by state Rep. Sheldon Neeley, D-Flint, who on Sept. 29 sent the attorney general a letter asking him to determine whether the city or state were culpable for the crisis.
Senior adviser Rusty Hills responded to Neeley by telling him Schuette’s office did “not believe it necessary” to conduct an investigation because of multiple and ongoing reviews at the state and federal level, including the Michigan Office of the Auditor General.
Schuette said he went ahead with an investigation this month after “a flood of new information” came to light, beginning in early October, including staffing changes at the DEQ and admissions of error by former director Dan Wyant, who eventually resigned.
“My job is to continually review and examine information that comes my way,” Schuette said.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Detroit confirmed in early January that it is helping the federal Environmental Protection Agency investigate the Flint water crisis. Snyder has also created a task force to review the state’s role.
Wyant stepped down from his DEQ post in late December after acknowledging his department should have required the city to add corrosion controls to Flint River water, which the city began using in late April of 2014 as it moved off Detroit water and awaited completion of a new regional pipeline from Lake Huron.
The Snyder-appointed task force concluded the DEQ was “primarily responsible for failing to ensure safe drinking water in Flint.” Two additional employees were suspended last week and could face further disciplinary actions.