Michigan plans to charge ex-Gov. Snyder in Flint water probe
Former Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, top aide Rich Baird and former health director Nick Lyon have been told they will face criminal charges resulting from Flint's water crisis, according to a source with knowledge of the situation.
Former Flint Public Works director Howard Croft also expects to be charged again, his lawyer, Jamie White, confirmed Tuesday. White said he was informed Monday about the development.
Up to 10 individuals, including members of Snyder's executive office, are set to be formally indicted as soon as Thursday after Attorney General Dana Nessel's office launched a new investigation in 2019, the source confirmed to The Detroit News.
The Flint water scandal contaminated the African American-majority city's drinking water with lead and was blamed for a deadly outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in 2014-15 while Snyder was governor. The looming charges likely mean the state's former top officeholder will face a high stakes legal battle over his administration's handling of the scandal.
The News could not discern what kind of charges would be brought against Snyder, Lyon, Baird and Croft.
“It’s an ongoing investigation," Attorney General's office spokeswoman Courtney Covington said Tuesday. "The team is working diligently, though and we do hope to have an announcement on the status of that investigation soon.”
Snyder approved putting the city of Flint into state emergency management and was responsible for the state's response to the lead contamination. Baird oversaw Flint's recovery effort, Lyon handled the state's responses to the city's public health problems and Croft was responsible for dealing with the city's water problems.
Brian Lennon, an attorney who represents Snyder, said it's "outrageous to think any criminal charges would be filed against" the former two-term Republican governor.
"Coming from an administration that claims to be above partisan politics, it is deeply disappointing to see pure political motivation driving charging decisions," Lennon added.
The disaster thrust Flint into the national spotlight and resulted in congressional hearings in 2016 where Democratic members of the U.S. House oversight committee demanded that Snyder resign. He apologized for the crisis but didn't leave office until his term ended at the end of 2018.
Bacteria in the water also was blamed for an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease, a form of pneumonia that accounted for more than 90 cases in Genesee County, including 12 deaths.
The outbreak was announced by Snyder and Lyon, director of Michigan's Department of Health and Human Services, at a hastily called January 2016 press conference in Detroit. Lyon conceded he knew cases were being reported months earlier.
Solicitor General Fadwa Hammoud and Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy have been leading the Michigan Attorney General Office's investigation, while Attorney General Dana Nessel has focused on Flint-related civil litigation, including a more than $640 million settlement that is awaiting court approval.
Snyder’s urban aide, Harvey Hollins, told a court in October 2017 that he had informed the GOP 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. Hollins did not say what he specifically told Snyder about the Legionnaires’ cases.
Hollins’ testimony came during a preliminary exam for Lyon and was in response to questions by then-Special Prosecutor Todd Flood, who was fired after Nessel took office.
When Flood asked if he was telling the truth, Hollins said: “I took an oath.”
The Flint civil litigation settlement releases from civil liability Snyder and all state employees who were subjects of the civil suits.
Flood had argued in court that Lyon had a "duty" to warn the public about the Legionnaires' outbreak in 2015. Lyon's defense lawyers countered that he ran Michigan's largest agency at 14,000 employees and relied on the expertise of department employees — none of whom recommended issuing a public warning.
The Associated Press first reported the expected Flint water charges against Snyder and Lyon.
Lawyers respond for clients
Baird could not be reached for comment, but his attorney, Randall Levine, confirmed Tuesday that his client had been informed that he will be "facing charges."
The expected charges stemmed "from his work helping to restore safe drinking water for all residents and faith in the community where he grew up," Levine said in a statement.
"Flint is where he was born and raised in a single-parent, blue-collar home," the lawyer said about Baird. "He is not a person of privilege as his mother was a waitress and a factory worker. Today, he still has family living in Flint."
A law firm representing Lyon said Tuesday that if there's any truth to the reports that Lyon might be charged with criminal offenses, it would be "an absolute travesty of justice."
"During the investigation, we offered to meet with the Attorney General’s representatives, but our offers were rebuffed," the statement from the law offices of Willey & Chamberlain said. "Recently, we have asked for copies of any so-called charges, and we have been refused.
"It appears that the attorney general is more interested in creating a misleading narrative, seeking publicity and trial by ambush, than in seeking the truth."
Croft was originally charged in December 2016 with 20-year felonies for involuntary manslaughter, false pretenses and conspiracy to commit false pretenses over bonding for a new regional water pipeline project that led to the switch to the corrosive Flint River. The charges were dropped as part of the new probe by Nessel's team.
"After more than two years of litigation, we failed to see a credible piece of evidence as it pertained to Mr. Croft," White said in a statement. "Most troubling is the process, or lack of due process, the prosecutors chose to pursue in this second prosecution."
"We are informed and believe a one-man grand jury was used to authorize these charges. If that was the case, a one-man grand jury is a rarely used dinosaur that has a built-in prejudice as it pertains to an individual’s ability to receive a fair trial. Implementing this secretive and prejudicial process is very concerning at this point in time."
Croft, a former union electrician, was brought in to run Flint's public works department in 2011 by state-appointed emergency manager Michael Brown. He served until 2015, when he was replaced by former Mayor Karen Weaver shortly after her election.
Ex-mayor: 'I'm so happy'
Weaver, who was in office from 2015 to 2019, couldn't contain her excitement Tuesday when told about the expected charges being brought against Snyder and others.
"It's just wonderful. It's finally here. It's hitting me right now," said Weaver, who has been pressing for Snyder to be charged for years. "It's about time. All evidence pointed to him that he knew, that he knew what was going on. It was a cover-up for 18 long months that something was going on with Flint and the water."
Weaver, a Democrat, said she was pleased to hear that charges are also coming against Baird and others "because you cannot do that by yourself."
"Now I hope that they are convicted," she said. "That's what's needs to happen next because people in Flint have been damaged. People in Flint have lost lives at their hands."
Snyder, a Republican who has been out of office for two years, was governor when state-appointed managers in Flint switched the city’s water to the Flint River in 2014 while a new regional authority pipeline was being built to Lake Huron. But the acidic river water leached lead from the city's old pipes because it was not properly treated, a decision that a Snyder-appointed independent commission blamed for the lead contamination.
The state didn't acknowledge the contamination until late September 2015 and the following month reconnected Flint's water supply to Detroit's regional water system. Snyder asked then-President Barack Obama for a disaster declaration, which Obama rejected because he said it was a manmade event. But the Democratic president approved emergency aid.
Art Woodson, a Flint activist who attended prior court hearings for Lyon and other state officials previously charged in the water crisis case, said he is especially pleased that people who weren't previously charged, such as Snyder and Baird, are now going to be indicted.
"It makes me feel that Attorney General Nessel was about her word," Woodson said of the charges. "This is one elected official that told me that she was going to hold people accountable that needs to be charged. And she owned up to her word."
He cautioned that getting convictions is another issue, but "the point of it is, they are getting ready to bring out everything that (Snyder) and his co-conspirators did to where we can make the decision if he's guilty or not."
'No one is above the law'
U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township, said what happened in Flint is a "terrible tragedy."
"Justice for Flint families comes in many forms, including holding state officials accountable for what they did to Flint," Kildee said. "While I never prejudge the outcome of any criminal charges, I support the Flint water crisis investigation following the facts, wherever they may lead. No one is above the law."
In 2018, Lyon was ordered to trial on involuntary manslaughter charges after a special prosecutor appointed by Republican then-Attorney General Bill Schuette accused him and Chief Medical Executive Eden Wells of failing to inform the public in a timely manner about the outbreak. Wells also was set to stand trial.
But by June 2019, the entire Flint water investigation was turned upside down. Prosecutors working under a new attorney general, Nessel, dismissed the cases against Lyon and Wells as well as charges against six more people and said the probe would start anew.
Lyon was the highest-ranking state official to be charged during Schuette's investigation with Wells the next highest. In December 2018, the state's health department created a nearly $180,000-a-year civil service "advisory physician" job for Wells.
Seven original defendants reached plea deals with Flood that avoided potential jail or prison time and resulted in charges being dismissed.
There’s been outside speculation that a grand jury had been convened to hear evidence for months. On Oct. 13, Dave Murray, one of Snyder's former spokesmen, spent at least two and a half hours inside the Genesee County Courthouse.
With Murray was attorney Douglas Van Essen, who said he could reveal no details about why the two were in Flint on that day, "other than he is Dave Murray and we're here."
Staff Writers Melissa Nann Burke and Beth LeBlanc contributed. Freelance writer Kayla Ruble contributed.