State could pay for Flint EMs’ criminal defense

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Michigan Treasury officials are considering whether the state will help Flint cover the cost of criminal defense attorneys for two former emergency managers who had been appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder to run the financially distressed city.

Attorney General Bill Schuette last week charged Darnell Earley and Gerald Ambrose with four counts of criminal wrongdoing for their alleged role in a Flint water crisis that led to dangerous lead levels and a suspected link to Legionnaires’ disease outbreaks that killed 12 people.

Municipalities usually are required to cover legal bills accrued by state-appointed emergency managers, even after they leave office. Ambrose’s contract, for instance, specifies that litigation expenses and attorney fees related to any action he took as emergency manager “shall be paid” by Flint.

But the Snyder administration is considering covering criminal defense attorneys for Earley and Ambrose “even though Treasury has no legal responsibility to pay for them,” said Snyder spokeswoman Anna Heaton.

“It’s under review with Treasury, but nothing has been decided for sure yet.”

A Flint spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment. City Hall is closed Friday and Monday because of the New Year holiday.

Earley and Ambrose should “pay for their own damn defense,” Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, said Friday. “I have no sympathy for either one of those guys.”

Requiring a local community to pay for the legal bills of state appointees is “one of the major flaws, and there are many,” of Michigan’s emergency manager law, said Ananich, who has called for an overhaul of the controversial statute.

“The city sure as hell shouldn’t be paying them, and the state should be focusing its resources less on trying to thwart a criminal investigation and more on making sure the citizens of Flint get the resources they need.”

Earley previously charged the city at least $75,000 for an attorney who helped prepare him for March testimony before the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which this month closed its own Flint investigation. Mayor Karen Weaver said at the time it was “not a bill we should be footing.”

The state ended up reimbursing Flint, Heaton said. “Treasury has reimbursed the city for legal bills in the past, most recently for Darnell’s congressional testimony,” she said.

Detroit-based attorney Todd Russell Perkins is defending Earley in the new criminal case, filed by Schuette’s office in Genesee County’s 67th District Court. Perkins declined Friday to say who may end up paying his fees. Online records indicate Ambrose is initially represented by a court-appointed attorney.

The former emergency managers are accused, among other things, of using “false pretenses” with the “intent to defraud or cheat” for advancing what special investigator Todd Flood called a “sham” administrative consent order that Schuette’s office had approved “as to form.” The charge has been criticized by legal experts, with one calling it an “unusual” application of the law.

Flood claims Earley, Ambrose and two former city officials misled state officials about the severity of a longstanding environmental problem to secure borrowing capacity for the financially troubled city. Millions of dollars purportedly meant to address a lime sludge dump site off Flint’s Bray Road instead helped the city pay for a pipeline to connect with the new Karegnondi Water Authority.

Perkins declined to discuss details of the charges against Earley because it is early in the “discovery process,” meaning Schuette’s office has not yet made clear what evidence it has in the case beyond charging documents and warrant requests.

“I believe that my client will be vindicated through this process.” Perkins told The Detroit News.

“This case is going to be tried in the public too,” he added. “I believe it’s unfair that when they talk about this Flint problem, more often than not even before I got involved in the case, I would see the face of Darnell Earley before I’d see anybody. There’s many, many other people who are involved, yet I think you see his name and face saturated throughout this.”

Snyder offered a short defense of Earley and Ambrose last week in a year-end interview with The News, saying “they worked hard in good faith, I believe.”

But Ananich called the charges against the former emergency managers “a step in the right direction.”

“Their sort of incompetence and their arrogance caused this problem, and I think citizens are now suffering because of them,” he said.

If Treasury does end up paying for the attorneys for Earley and Ambrose, it will add to the state’s mounting litigation costs related to the Flint crisis. Legislators have already allocated more than $25 million in extra funding for legal work in the past and current fiscal years, including bills related to multiple civil lawsuits filed against the state.

Separately, legislators and Snyder have approved more than $234 million in aid for Flint, including money for the city to switch back to Detroit water and to help residents pay their water bills. While testing suggests water quality is improving, officials still advise residents not to drink from their taps without a filter.

Schuette’s probe, launched in January, is expected to cost nearly $5 million over two years. Snyder’s office recently increased its own contract for criminal defense attorneys from $2 million to $3.5 million to “comply with the investigation.”

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services has spent more than $660,000 on criminal defense attorneys related to the Flint probe, along with another $78,000 on legal fees in civil cases, according to a tally provided last week to The News.

Schuette has charged three health department employees with alleged crimes, but the department has so far contracted with criminal defense attorneys to represent 19 state employees, including Director Nick Lyon. As The Detroit News first reported, Flood sent Lyon a Sept. 7 letter saying he was a “target” of the investigation, but Lyon has not faced any charges to date.

The attorney general and his team have so far charged 13 current and former state and local officials as part of the Flint investigation, which Schuette’s office says has included roughly 200 witness interviews.