Lansing — The State Administrative Board approved a $1.5 million contract on Tuesday to fund the Michigan attorney general’s investigation into Flint’s lead-tainted water supply and ignored criticism that another $1.2 million is being spent to help the governor respond to probes and lawsuits.
The board voted 4-0 to authorize $1.25 million in additional spending by Attorney General Bill Schuette for a special counsel and team of roughly two dozen outside lawyers and investigators. Schuette did not need approval of an initial $249,000 contract because it was below the threshold requiring board to act.
Representatives for Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, Lt. Gov. Brian Calley and the state treasurer abstained from voting because the Snyder administration’s role in the water crisis is under investigation.
Democratic lawmakers and other Snyder critics urged the board Tuesday to reject up to $1.2 million in spending by the governor’s office for legal assistance related to Flint’s disaster. The board ignored the requests because under a rule change adopted when Snyder took office in 2011, governor-approved contracts for services do not need board approval.
“Spending more than a million dollars on legal fees while men, women and children still face the threat of tainted water is inhuman at best,” said Rep. Vanessa Guerra, D-Saginaw.
The governor has retained the Warner Norcross & Judd LLP law firm for up to $800,000 in representation for both potential criminal defense and handling thousands of pages of records related to Flint’s April 2014 switch to corrosive Flint River water.
Snyder spokesman Ari Adler has said it is appropriate for the state to bear the governor’s legal costs because all investigations are looking at actions taken in his official capacity.
The remaining $400,000 is to hire Detroit attorney Eugene Driker and his law firm, Barris, Scott, Denn & Driker law firm of Detroit, to represent the governor and his office in civil lawsuits brought by Flint residents over the city’s lead-contaminated water.
The state board approved the contracts Tuesday morning after a joint House-Senate committee held its first public hearing in Lansing on Flint’s water contamination. The action also occurred while a congressional committee was holding another hearing in Washington, D.C., over the state and federal government’s role in the crisis.
Democratic legislative leaders argue the Republican governor’s legal bills from criminal defense attorneys should be paid from a privately-funded legal defense fund.
“What do you need a criminal defense attorney for?” asked Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint. “What would be the point of having taxpayers pay for that?”
The Associated Press and Detroit News Staff Writer Chad Livengood contributed.