Flint — A top aide of Gov. Rick Snyder told a court Friday that he informed the governor about the Flint area Legionnaires’ disease outbreak in December 2015, contradicting Snyder’s testimony to Congress that he first learned of it in January 2016.
In 2014-15, a Genesee County outbreak of the deadly form of pneumonia ended up killing 12 and sickening 79 residents. Snyder informed the public about the respiratory disease outbreak at a hastily arranged Jan. 13, 2016, press conference in Detroit.
Urban initiatives director Harvey Hollins testified that he gave Snyder information pertaining to Legionnaires’ in late 2015 from his own six-member task force, contradicting Snyder’s March 2016 testimony to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform that he first learned in January of that year. Hollins did not indicate what he specifically told Snyder about the Legionnaires’ cases.
When special prosecutor Todd Flood asked if he was telling the truth, Hollins said: “I took an oath.”
Hollins’ comments came during the fourth day of testimony in the preliminary examination for Michigan Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon, who is accused of involuntary manslaughter in the death of 85-year-old Robert Skidmore of Genesee Township and obstruction of justice by deliberately failing to warn the public about an outbreak of Legionnaires.’
Testimony abruptly ended after the discrepancy was noted, and 67th District Judge David Goggins adjourned the case until Nov. 1 without explanation.
Flood declined to say whether the governor was in legal trouble given Hollins’ testimony.
“I don’t foresee us calling the governor,” Flood said of possible testimony in the Lyon case. “ ... He testified under oath. I don’t think the governor’s going to be changing any testimony.
“It’s not really what I needed to show. I needed to show probable cause in this case, and that’s what I’m going to (do) about what happened and what failed to happen. That simple.”
Snyder’s office didn’t offer any reaction to the testimony.
“We don’t comment on the investigation or judicial proceedings,” Snyder spokeswoman Anna Heaton said Friday.
U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee said he asked the House Oversight committee to look into the conflicting statements.
“Mr. Hollins’ testimony raises concerning questions about the Governor’s statements that need to be answered,” Kildee said in a statement.
It would be up to House Oversight Chairman Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., whether to reopen the Flint probe ended by former chairman Jason Chaffetz, the Utah Republican who retired earlier this year and joined Fox News as a contributor.
Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland, the top Democrat on the panel, late Friday said he plans to consult with Gowdy immediately to determine the committee’s next steps.
Snyder is not among the 15 current and former state and city officials charged in connection with Attorney General Bill Schuette’s investigation into the Flint lead contamination crisis.
The discrepancy may not be significant if it involves a difference of a couple of weeks, said Peter Henning, a Wayne State University law professor and former federal prosecutor.
Any potential perjury case would be outside Flood’s jurisdiction because Snyder made the comments to Congress, Henning said. And it is unlikely a federal prosecutor would want to file charges, especially since the House Oversight committee has ended its probe, he said.
But Flood’s decision to highlight the contradiction is further proof of the “bad blood” between the Attorney General’s Office and Snyder, Henning said. Bringing it out in the open certainly does not put the governor in a good light, he said.
In June, Schuette said he was not charging Snyder with any crimes related to the Flint water crisis, but left the door open to the possibility.
The attorney general, who like Snyder is a Republican, made the comment at a Flint news conference as he was charging Lyon and four other former Flint and state officials with involuntary manslaughter, the most serious charges to emerge in his investigation.
When asked why Snyder had not been charged, Schuette said no “crime has been established,” and “we’re not filing charges at this time.”
Schuette told reporters then his legal team attempted to interview Snyder as part of the ongoing investigation but was “not successful.”
Snyder counsel Brian Lennon said the governor is willing to testify under oath and had scheduled a time and date for an interview. But Flood failed to produce an investigative subpoena that had been promised, Lennon said in a statement.
When Flood produces the investigative subpoena, he said Snyder will “provide additional testimony under oath.”
Others have suggested Michigan law doesn’t require the production of an investigative subpoena to elicit testimony in an investigation.
Hollins’ contradiction of Snyder’s sworn congressional testimony came on a day when a Flint task force member said he felt Lyon was “glib” and “dismissive” on questions about the 2014-15 Legionnaires’ outbreak.
“I was disappointed in the quality and completeness of the answers, the depth of knowledge,” Flint pediatrician Dr. Lawrence Reynolds testified about his meeting with Lyon in either late December 2015 or early 2016. “Part of being a pediatrician is, I interview adolescents and parents. And so with about 35 years of experience, you get a feeling for when you’re getting the whole story, part of the story or a variation thereof.”
An example, the doctor said, was when he asked Lyon about Legionella bacteria in Flint and the health director responded: “That’s over.”
Some experts have linked the Legionnaires’ outbreak to the switch in the city’s drinking water to the Flint River. The lack of corrosion-control chemicals led to lead leaching from the city’s old pipes and contaminating the water.
The meeting with Lyon, which included other members of Snyder’s cabinet, led Reynolds of Mott Children’s Center to demand Hollins to come clean about the outbreak of Legionnaires’ in 2014-15.
“If you don’t, you’ll be stepping on a land mine,” Reynolds said he remembered telling the urban affairs aide.
Hollins called back several days later to ask who could help “deal with the Legionella” issue, Reynolds said, who added that he felt he was being given the “run around” by state health officials.
The task force issued a report in March 2016 accusing the Snyder administration and others in state government of “failure, intransigence, unpreparedness, delay, inaction and environmental injustice” in the contamination of Flint’s water supply.
The six-member group also said state health and environmental officials should have assumed the deadly spike in Legionnaires’ disease cases was linked to the switch in water sources “rather than assuming and communicating the opposite.”
“Ultimately, the corrosiveness of the drinking water leached lead from pipes and plumbing fixtures, and it may have increased the likelihood of water contamination with legionella,” the report said.
Schuette’s legal team must persuade Goggins there is probable cause for Lyon to go to trial.
The manslaughter charge has a penalty of up to 15 years in prison and a $7,500 fine, while the obstruction charge penalty of up to 15 years in prison and a $7,500 fine.
Legal experts have warned that Flood has high hurdles to clear during a trial in proving a link between Lyon’s inaction and the death of Skidmore.
A Detroit News review of 24,000 pages of state, Genesee County and Flint emails discovered that at least six Environmental Protection Agency officials were told in late March 2015 that the state would alert the public to the Legionnaires’ disease outbreak. None were made, and two months later, a Michigan health official’s email to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared “the outbreak is over.”
More people would go on to die in the summer and fall, and the public wasn’t told of the outbreak until a hastily arranged Jan. 13, 2016, press conference by Snyder, who said he had heard about the Legionnaires’ outbreak two days earlier.