Howes: No denying politics in AG’s Flint water roll-up

Daniel Howes, The Detroit News

The wages of the Flint water crisis are finally touching the inner reaches of Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration in ways average folks can understand.

Involuntary manslaughter charges against Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon and four others are a bold effort by Snyder’s would-be successor, Attorney General Bill Schuette, to enforce some high-level accountability in the public health fiasco blamed for claiming a dozen lives and sickening nearly 80 more with Legionnaires’ disease.

The charges announced Wednesday target one of Flint’s former emergency managers, Darnell Earley, while the state’s chief medical officer, Eden Wells, is accused of obstruction of justice and lying to a police officer. The charges stop short of the governor’s office door — for now.

Still, the implication is clear: Team Snyder can neither deny nor off-load responsibility for the three-years-and-counting scandal. It can’t blame lower-level state employees, bureaucrats in Flint or officials inside regional offices of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Schuette, a fellow Republican with a history of antagonizing Snyder, clearly does not intend to let that happen. Doesn’t matter how much Schuette’s aggressive pursuit of the complex case might produce some obvious political benefit to the guy whose abbreviated title — A.G. — is described in state political circles as standing for “almost governor.”

As much as the Flint crisis is about bungled responsibility for public health and bureaucratic incompetence run amok, it cannot be separated from a political dimension informed by gubernatorial politics and such Republican policy preferences as the state’s emergency manager law.

Look no further than Flint for Exhibit A in any incipient effort by a Democratic governor or divided Legislature to weaken, if not kill, the law the state used so effectively to engineer Detroit’s historic bankruptcy — only to see it misused in Flint.

If there’s one place in contemporary Michigan where personnel truly is destiny, it would be the emergency manager law. Success, or failure, depends almost entirely on who’s tapped to lead which restructuring, and culpability for those missed calls in Flint rests solely with the governor who made them.

The two most likely aspirants for next year’s Republican nomination effectively stand on opposite sides of the Flint chasm. There’s Schuette, the law-and-order A.G. following the evidence where it leads, allegedly irrespective of politics. And there’s Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, whose office ties him to Snyder and the Flint crisis whatever his efforts there to help and be visible.

Calley can’t separate himself from that connection any more than Schuette can deny the political advantage he likely derives from his muscular pursuit of wrongdoing in a case that once gain made Michigan a source of national derision and international outrage.

In announcing the charges, Schuette acknowledged criticism suggesting that he and his team of investigators are being too tough and aggressive with a fellow Republican. His response? A lawyerly “so be it.”

He doesn’t have much choice now. Each time Schuette pointedly declines to exclude Snyder from his investigation, or says the governor will not be charged “at this time,” he raises expectations that both are still possible.

That would be a remarkable, if not truly historic, turn. As much as Snyder has achieved with the restructuring of and reinvestment in Detroit, with stronger state finances, reformed corporate taxes and more, his tenure is shaping up to be defined by the Flint Water Crisis and the people affected by it.

And the governor didn’t help in a written statement Wednesday, which went longer on its lament for “state employees ... charged over a year ago” and shorter on compassion for the people of Flint affected by the long-running mess.

Now, issuing criminal charges and offering persuasive evidence culminating in convictions are two very different things. And legal experts say there are no guarantees Schuette and his team are likely to prevail in their cases against city and state officials they already have charged.

They’re not saying anything Schuette doesn’t already know. Even if he doesn’t win the convictions he’s seeking, the A.G. would win the political calculation: he worked the evidence, pushed hard but fell short in an effort to make the big names pay for their malfeasance.

If that isn’t the making of a political talking point in next year’s race for governor, it’s hard to see what is. While the Snyder wing (and, by implication, Calley) were busy covering their butts, the thinking goes, Schuette was on duty when it counted.


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Follow Daniel Howes on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN.