Michigan Gov. Snyder sat down with The Detroit News Wednesday afternoon in his Lansing office and reflected on the year's developments in the Flint Water Crisis, touching on emergency managers, water quality, progress in Flint and legal developments. Dale G. Young, The Detroit News
Lansing — Gov. Rick Snyder on Wednesday defended two former Flint emergency managers who face criminal charges for allegedly contributing to a water contamination crisis that has hampered his administration.
In a year-end interview with The Detroit News, Snyder responded to Attorney General Bill Schuette’s characterization that former emergency managers Darnell Earley and Gerald Ambrose were fixated on Flint’s finances to the detriment of public health.
“They worked hard in good faith, I believe,” Snyder said when asked to rate Earley’s and Ambrose’s performances.
Earley and Ambrose are the highest-ranking government officials to become ensnared in Schuette’s wide-ranging probe of the lead contamination of Flint’s water.
Despite criminal charges now nearly reaching his doorstep, the second-term Republican governor seemed incredulous at the idea he could be next.
“I don’t know for what, but again, this is what we need to wait and see what happens during the judicial process,” Snyder said.
Schuette, a fellow Republican eyeing a likely bid for the governor’s office in 2018, has repeatedly said no government official — including Snyder — is off the table in his probe, which has resulted in criminal charges against 13 city and state employees.
Snyder confirmed Wednesday he has not been interviewed by Schuette’s Flint water special prosecutor, Todd Flood, a Royal Oak attorney.
But Flood’s probe has gotten closer to Snyder in recent months, causing the governor’s office to increase a contract for criminal defense attorneys from $2 million to $3.5 million.
All told, Snyder’s office has budgeted $5 million on private attorneys to represent the governor and his aides in civil lawsuits, various investigations and producing hundreds of thousands of pages of documents.
The added cost of private attorneys is “to comply with the investigation,” Snyder spokeswoman Anna Heaton said.
In September, Flood sent Snyder’s health department director, Nick Lyon, a letter saying he was a “target” of the investigation over his agency’s handling of a deadly outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease suspected to be caused by the Flint River water. To date, Lyon has not been charged with any crimes.
Most of the criminal charges have centered on Schuette’s accusations that the negligence of Earley, Ambrose and lower-level government workers in Flint’s disastrous 2014 water source switch rose to acts of criminal behavior.
Snyder, who has a law degree, did not dispute a suggestion the charges amount to criminalizing the decision-making of government workers.
“I think that’s one of the questions that will be part of the judicial process,” Snyder said. “These are just the initial charges, so I think there’s a lot of discussion that needs to take place. Again, it should happen in the courtroom, being done following our constitutional standards.”
Snyder addressed the criminal charges against his appointees just hours after Earley was arraigned in a Flint courtroom on charges of false pretenses, conspiracy to commit false pretenses, misconduct in office and willful neglect of duty while in office.
Ambrose faces similar charges, some of which stem from his refusal to switch Flint back to Detroit’s water system in late 2014 and early 2015 before he exited Flint’s City Hall.
Earley and Ambrose both resisted going back to Detroit’s water system, contending it would cost the cash-strapped city $12 million a year it could not afford.
The charges against both Earley and Ambrose carry up to 20 years in prison — if they stick in court.
“In our system, people are presumed to be innocent until proven guilty,” Snyder said. “These charges are there. Let’s let the process work. That will help decide the issue about what really happened.”
Schuette alleges Earley and Ambrose engaged in a “conspiracy” to borrow “tens of millions of dollars” for Flint to clean up a contaminated lime sludge lagoon and then diverted the money to construction of the Karegnondi Water Authority’s new $285 million water pipeline to Lake Huron.
In 2013, then-Flint emergency manager Ed Kurtz — Earley’s predecessor — moved forward with plans to end Flint’s half-century long purchase of water from Detroit and join the new KWA regional pipeline with other Genesee County communities.
In April 2014, with Earley at the helm, Flint began temporarily drawing from the Flint River for its drinking water — sparking rampant complaints from residents about the foul taste, orange color and smell of the water.
Schuette alleges Earley and Ambrose committed the crimes of misconduct and willful neglect of duty and misconduct in office for refusing to switch back to Detroit water.
State Rep. Sheldon Neeley, a former city council member, said he witnessed Earley’s refusal to reverse the course Kurtz set on using Flint River water.
Earley would often cite his broad and sweeping powers under Public Act 436 of 2012, Michigan’s emergency manager law, Neeley said.
“He blew us off in an official manner, citing Public Act 436,” Neeley said Wednesday. “(Ambrose and Earley) were totally operating in a vacuum absent any input from residents or other elected officials.”
Flint didn’t switch back to Detroit water until October 2015 following the discovery of high levels of toxic lead throughout Flint’s water system.
The switch came six months after Ambrose left Flint and declared the city’s finances had been fixed after nearly a half-decade of state control.
Flint remains under a state of emergency, with residents urged to not drink the city’s water without a lead-filtering faucet filter.
Snyder the Legislature have appropriated $234 million in state aid for Flint’s recovery, including $25 million to replace at least 5,000 of the water service lines damaged by the corrosive Flint River water.
State and federal environmental regulators are holding a Flint water summit with Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards next month in Chicago to review citywide water testing results.
Snyder said Wednesday he’s hopeful the scientists will soon give Flint’s water a clean bill of health after a tumultuous year.
In 2017, the governor said he plans to push for more stringent testing requirements for lead in water “because that’s been a failure” exposed by the Flint crisis.
“Let’s step up and help heal the situation, solve problems, move the situation forward (while) investigators are doing investigations,” Snyder said. “That’s now where I’m spending my time.”