Flint — Emails between state health officials show that the state’s former drinking water chief was concerned in October 2014 about publicly identifying Flint’s water as a possible cause of an uptick in Legionnaires’ disease cases in the region.
Attorney General Bill Schuette’s office is contending that an exchange of emails among state health officials help prove that former Michigan Department of Environmental Quality Drinking Water Chief Liane Shekter-Smith tried to keep early information under wraps about a possible link between what were then 30 cases of the respiratory disease in Genesee County and Flint’s April 2014 drinking water switch.
The Detroit News obtained the emails through an open records request. But on Monday, attorneys for 12 defendants charged in connection with the Flint water crisis, including Shekter-Smith’s, complained to 67th District Judge Nathaniel Perry III about the slow flow of documents from state prosecutors.
Shekter-Smith’s attorney Brian Morley told The News on Monday he had not seen the October 2014 emails. The prosecution is supposed to make available documents and statements made by the prosecution’s witnesses.
Schuette’s office added a charge of involuntary manslaughter last week against Shekter-Smith on top of previously filed felony misconduct in office and misdemeanor willful neglect of duty charges.
The attorney general’s legal team also is arguing in charging documents that the emails and testimony from some of the state health officials who sent them help build a case for involuntary manslaughter against Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon — an accusation Lyon’s attorney has denied and has said his client will vigorously fight.
Schuette’s legal team is also charging former Flint Director Of Public Works Howard Croft, state Water Supervisor Stephen Busch and former Emergency Manager Darnell Earley with involuntary manslaughter — punishable by 15 years in prison. The charges are connected to the Flint area Legionnaires’ disease cases that are linked to 12 deaths and 79 illnesses in 2014-15.
Shekter-Smith was “concerned that we were going to be making some announcement soon about the water being the source of infection,” according to an Oct. 21, 2014 email from Susan Bohm, manager of the state health department’s respiratory illnesses epidemiology unit, to two Genesee County Health Department officials.
In a separate Oct. 17, 2014 email, Bohm told state health department colleagues Shannon Andrews Johnson, Jay Fielder and Jim Collins that she received a call from Shekter-Smith.
Bohm told Shekter-Smith that “the Flint water was at this point just a hypothesis” and noted to Johnson that Shekter-Smith asked her “whether Genesee had the capability to test water and I replied that we would be working with Genesee to coordinate any water testing.”
“What she did share with me was interesting — that there have been numerous complaints about the Flint water, that the Governor’s Office had been involved, and that any announcement by public health about the quality of the water would certainly inflame the situation,” the epidemiologist wrote, bold-facing the particular section of the email.
Shekter-Smith’s attorney Morley defended his client’s intentions.
“There’s no way that Ms. Shekter-Smith asked anyone to not disclose anything in an effort to frustrate any investigation,” Morley said.
State officials did not alert the public to Legionnaires’ cases in the Flint area until Gov. Rick Snyder did so at a hastily organized Detroit press conference in January 2016. People over 50 are especially at risk of getting Legionnaires’, including 85-year-old Robert Skidmore of Genesee Township, whose death is the basis for Schuette’s filing of the involuntary manslaughter charges.
Bohm is expected to testify that Shekter-Smith knew of these complaints and “expressed concern that the MDHHS would announce the Flint River as the source of the Legionnaires’ disease outbreak,” Schuette’s charging document said.
“The current hypothesis is that the source of the outbreak may be the Flint municipal water,” state infectious disease epidemiologist Johnson wrote in an Oct. 13, 2014, email to colleagues. Although Genesee County health officials thought the increase “was associated with McLaren Flint Hospital,” Johnson wrote that she and colleague Tim Bolen believed “it was pretty clear that many of the cases did not fit with this hypothesis.”
The DEQ fired Shekter-Smith in February 2016 after an internal review concluded her office was responsible for failing to require Flint to apply corrosion control chemicals, a key reason why lead leached from the city’s aging pipes into the water supply.
Schuette held a press conference in Flint last week to publicize the involuntary manslaughter charges. They drew the ire of James White, who represents former Flint Director Of Public Works Howard Croft. Schuette’s legal team added the charge against Croft, who is also charged with false pretense and conspiracy to commit false pretenses.
White said Monday that Schuette’s team is trying the case in public before it goes to trial, noting that the attorney general’s press conference had a Flint water tower mural as a backdrop.
“The pre-trial publicity in this case is becoming prejudicial to Mr. Croft, and I would argue the other defendants as well, although I have not asked for them to join in on this particular motion,” White told 67th District Judge Nathanial Perry III following a probable cause conference.
He argued it was “suspect” to release mug shots of defendants who were charged six months ago.
Todd Flood, Schuette’s special prosecutor, said he had nothing to “do with mug shots” and didn’t want to “inflame” potential jurors either.
Perry didn’t rule on the motion but said he is open to monitoring the situation.
Schuette’s office has said Environmental Public Health Director Linda Dykema would testify at Lyon’s trial. In a Jan. 28, 2015, email cited by prosecutors, Dykema gives instructions about how health department officials should handle calls from the public.
“Sharing this information to make you aware that there is a political situation that we don’t want to stumble into should we get hotline calls,” Dykema wrote to 14 other department officials, including Corinne Miller, the retired Health and Human Services Epidemiology Department chief. “Refer callers to me if you take any, please.”
Miller and Dykema will testify against Lyon, according to Schuette’s charging documents. Miller is currently serving one year of probation after pleading no contest to willful neglect of duty over her role in the Flint water crisis.
Schuette’s charging document said Dykema’s instructions to staff “stemmed from her desire to protect those under her supervision from getting into trouble with management (Defendant LYON) and potentially Governor Snyder’s Office.”
Staff Writer Jonathan Oosting contributed.