Flint — Michigan’s health department director and four other officials involved with Flint’s lead-contaminated water were charged Wednesday with involuntary manslaughter, the most serious charges to date in the criminal investigation.
Nick Lyon was accused of misconduct in office and involuntary manslaughter, becoming the highest-ranking member of Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration to be targeted in the criminal probe. The manslaughter charges carries a penalty of up to 15 years in prison and a $7,500 fine, while the misconduct charge carries a prison sentence of up to five years and a $10,000 fine.
Lyon, former Flint Emergency Manager Darnell Earley, former Michigan Department of Environmental Quality Drinking Water Chief Liane Shekter-Smith, state Water Supervisor Stephen Busch and former Flint Water Department Manager Howard Croft are accused of failing to alert the public about an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in the Flint area. Earley, Shekter-Smith, Busch and Croft already have been charged with less-serious crimes.
There were 12 deaths and 79 other people sickened by Legionnaires’ disease in 2014-15, which some experts have linked to the contaminated water after the city switched to Flint River water in April 2014.
One legal expert said the “aggressive” manslaughter charges will be challenging to prove to juries.
But Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette remained undeterred and indicated during a Wednesday press conference that he is continuing not to rule out possible charges against Snyder. When asked why Snyder has not been charged, Schuette said no “crime has been established,” and “we’re not filing charges at this time.”
Lyon and four others failed to protect the residents of Flint, said Schuette, who was joined by Genesee County Prosecutor David Leyton, Special Prosecutor Todd Flood and investigator Andy Arena. Lyon’s failure to act resulted in the death of at least one person, 85-year-old Robert Skidmore of Genesee Township, the attorney general said.
Skidmore’s death certificate shows that he died Dec. 13, 2015, from “end stage congestive heart failure.” Only diabetes is listed as a contributing cause to the death of Skidmore, according to the certificate.
But the charging document indicates that a McLaren Flint Hospital doctor on June 2, 2015, collected a sample from Skidmore that tested positive for Legionella and that the Genesee County medical examiner will “not refute the medical doctor’s findings that Legionnaires’ Disease was a cause of Robert Skidmore’s death.”
The state’s chief medical officer, Dr. Eden Wells, was charged Wednesday with obstruction of justice and lying to a police officer. The obstruction charge carries a prison term of up to two years. Wells’ lawyer was not immediately known.
“People have died because of the decisions people made,” Schuette said.
“There are two types of people in the world: Those who give a damn and those who don’t. This is a case where there has been willful disregard” for the health and safety of others, Flood said.
Lyon attorneys Chip Chamberlain and Larry Willey fired back that the case “appears to be a misguided theory looking for facts that do not exist.”
“To that point, we’ve witnessed numerous press conferences by the prosecution that have been intentionally prejudicial to the process and unfair to those targeted. Worse yet, they have made many statements that are completely false. ... We expect the court system to vindicate him entirely.”
Snyder fires back
Email records released by Snyder’s administration show Lyon was aware of a spike in Legionella — bacteria that causes Legionnaires’ disease, a form of pneumonia — as early as January 2015 but didn’t put out a public alert. Snyder informed the public about the Legionnaires’ outbreak in January 2016.
Lyon has said he knew about Legionnaires’ for months but wanted to wait until investigators in the Health and Human Services Department finished their own probe.
Snyder fired back at Schuette’s office while keeping Lyon and Wells on the job, telling Health and Human Services employees in an email that “I am standing behind Nick and Eden.”
“Director Lyon and Dr. Eden Wells, like every other person who has been charged with a crime by Bill Schuette, are presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt,” Snyder said in a statement.
“Some state employees were charged over a year ago and have been suspended from work since that time. They still have not had their day in court. That is not justice for Flint nor for those who have been charged. Director Lyon and Dr. Wells have been and continue to be instrumental in Flint’s recovery.”
Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, called Snyder’s response to the charges “tone deaf” and argued the governor should be focused on the harm done to Flint residents rather than state employees.
Ananich questioned if Lyon can continue leading the state health department “if he has not been protecting the public and not been informing his superiors” about real or potential threats.
“I think it’s very troubling, and I think he probably should step down,” he said about Lyon. “I think the question needs to be why the governor doesn’t think so.”
Schuette charges face hurdles
Wayne State University law professor Peter Henning said the attorney general’s office will have to prove that any public warning he may have made about Legionnaires’ disease could have prevented deaths.
“For any homicide charge, you have to prove causation and that there is a direct linkage for what he did or failed to do and the death,” said Henning, a former federal prosecutor. “That will certainly be a hurdle for the attorney general’s office.”
Prosecutors may also have to prove a link between Flint water and the Legionnaires’ disease outbreak, Henning added. Experts and the state have debated whether the water itself is to blame or a local hospital where many of the cases originated.
“This case is going to turn very much on expert testimony,” Henning said. “It’s not a whodunit. It’s: Did he do anything that caused the death? The death occurred; now it’s a matter of tracing it back, and there’s a challenge there.”
But in a Wednesday interview, Leyton said he and Schuette had a “duty to bring those charges.”
“Every single case you bring to court as a prosecuting attorney is a challenge because of so many factors,” he said. “But our job is provide justice for the people of Michigan and, in this specific instance, the city of Flint.”
About 15 state and Flint officials have been charged in what Schuette called “the most comprehensive investigation in Michigan history.” The longtime Republican elected official has been considering a run for governor in 2018.
“I am duty bound to uphold the laws in the state of Michigan,” Schuette said.
Flint official, residents react
Flint Mayor Karen Weaver was watching the press conference on a livestream from her chief of staff and said “wow” when the involuntary manslaughter charges were announced.
“It’s terrible what has occurred but it’s a good day for the people of the city of Flint,” Weaver later said. “We’ve had people die as a result of this water crisis. And for justice to be had is wonderful.”
The charges are “a measure of justice,” said U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, a Flint Township Democrat who has gained national attention speaking out on the crisis. He told MSNBC host Rachel Maddow on Wednesday. “… It’s somewhat comforting to know that the system works, that when you see a state government do something as bad as they did to the city of Flint, that individuals will be held accountable for it. But we need more. We need other forms of justice, we need people to make it right. We need the state government to step up and make it right.”
Flint resident Shelby Offord, 28, said the charges filed Wednesday are “a good start,” but wishes officials would do more.
“I feel there should be more charges coming because the ones who have been affected and got the lead poisoning, that’s something they’ve got to deal with the rest of their lives,” Offord said as she walked in downtown Flint with her two 10-year-old girls, both of who had some form of lead in their system because of the water.
Doug McGruder, 75, of Flint Township, said Earley is the “scapegoat” and that others such as the governor need to be held accountable by Schuette. But he said he is not holding his breath.
“Earley shouldn’t have been charged because like me, on my job, I have a boss,” McGruder said. “The person that’s in charge of me should be charged. And that’s the governor.”