Key DEQ Flint water switch official makes plea deal

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News
Liane Shekter Smith is arraigned before Judge Nathaniel Perry III, in the 67th District Court in this Wednesday, August 3, 2016 file photo.

Flint — A plea deal was reached Monday for the fired former head of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality's division responsible for overseeing Flint’s water source switch.

In 67th District Court, Liane Shekter-Smith pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge that may result in 90 days in jail and a $500 fine. She agreed to testify against other officials in exchange for a reduced sentence.

If Shekter-Smith fails to cooperate in the investigation or obstructs it, according to the deal, she will plead no contest to a charge of misconduct in office, which is a five-year felony.

"Her candor and truthfulness to date has been refreshing," Special Prosecutor Todd Flood told Judge Jennifer Manley.

Taking the plea deal was “unpalatable,” said Brian Morley, Shekter-Smith’s attorney, but “it helps her begin to get her life back.”

Shekter-Smith can help with the investigation “because she can explain things so well” related to the crisis and how it happened, Morley said.

The former chief of DEQ’s Office of Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance had faced a charge of involuntary manslaughter for a death in the 2014-15 Legionnaires' disease outbreak in the region. She also had been charged with misconduct in office and willful neglect of duty for allegedly ignoring mounting problems with river water source between April 2014 and October 2015 that were discovered to be connected to lead contamination.

The misdemeanor plea involves a charge of committing a disturbance in a public building. It resulted from a meeting at a state office building in Lansing where Shekter-Smith is accused of not taking a document a few years ago that was handed to her by Flint resident LeAnne Walters

Test results in the summer of 2015 showed Walters' home had lead water levels many times in excess of the federal limit of 15 parts per billion.

If Shekter-Smith complies with the plea agreement in the next six months, all charges will be dismissed. In all, seven of the 15 Flint water defendants have reached plea deals with Flood that have ended in no jail time or could result in no incarceration.

The deal with Flood comes after Attorney General Dana Nessel on Friday asked Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy to take over as the Flint special prosecutor. Worthy hasn't made a decision but said she would review the Flint cases.

Flood, who was appointed by Republican former Attorney General Bill Schuette, had offered a letter of resignation but Nessel hasn't acted on it. Flood declined to discuss Nessel's request to Worthy.

Uncertainty about how Nessel and possibly Worthy may affect the cases might have helped prod the plea agreement, Morley said. “I think the timing was just right,” he said.

After the Nov. 6 election, Morley said he and Shekter-Smith started contemplating a plea deal, "so I just think it gained a little steam. 

Although Morley said he has heard “great things” about Worthy's office, he said it would make more sense to keep Flood involved.

“This is complex stuff. It’s going to be overwhelming to anybody,” he said. “You don’t want to waste resources and say let’s just start all over.

It isn't clear how Worthy's review might affect the Flint prosecutions, which have taken more than two years and have not yet resulted in a trial.

Shekter-Smith's agreement is the second plea deal that Flood has in two weeks concerning four former and current DEQ officials involved with Flint's watch source switch in April 2014.

In a legal agreement made almost two weeks ago, DEQ water regulators Michael Prysby and Stephen Busch agreed to testify against other Flint prosecution defendants. Busch and Prysby had been accused of “willfully and knowingly misleading” regulators at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Genesee County Health Department about the treatment of Flint’s river water.

The drinking water became contaminated with lead after it wasn’t treated with corrosion-control chemicals, according to a gubernatorial task force.

Prysby, a DEQ environmental engineer, pleaded no contest to a one-year misdemeanor violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act, saying he knew that construction work at the city's water treatment plant had started before the actual issuance of a permit. His sentencing is scheduled for Jan. 23. 

Busch, a district supervisor for the DEQ, pleaded no contest to a disturbance of lawful meetings in relation to a January 2015 meeting in which Busch was accused of not responding to residents' concerns, a meeting that eventually had to be concluded early because of disorder. He had faced a charge of involuntary manslaughter in the Legionnaires' outbreak.

If Shekter Smith's deal is finalized, Patrick Cook would be the only remaining defendant in the preliminary exam that has involved the four DEQ bureaucrats. Talks are underway about a possible plea deal for him, and Cook's preliminary exam is scheduled to resume Jan. 16.

Cook, a water treatment engineer, is accused of misconduct in office, conspiracy to engage in misconduct in office and willful neglect of duty for allegedly manipulating a Lead and Copper Rule report on the levels of lead in Flint’s water.

DEQ emails released by former Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder’s office have shown that Cook dismissed concerns raised in April 2015 by EPA lead expert Miguel Del Toral about Flint’s lack of corrosion control chemicals and proposed silencing Del Toral, who has since been hailed as a whistle blower.

Former Michigan Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon and former Chief Medical Executive Eden Wells were bound over for trial on charges including involuntary manslaughter related to the Legionnaires' outbreak. 

Former Flint Emergency Manager Darnell Earley and former Flint Water Department Manager Howard Croft also face involuntary manslaughter and other charges in their preliminary exams that began in the past month or so. State health workers Robert Scott and Nancy Peeler are nearing the end of their preliminary exams.

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