Snyder, 8 others charged in Flint water probe: 'There are no velvet ropes'
Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel's office revealed 41 charges Thursday against nine former state and city officials resulting from the Flint water crisis, arguing the cases were about justice, truth and accountability.
The state and Flint officials were in power when the water crisis unfolded, including former Gov. Rick Snyder, top aide Rich Baird and the governor's two lead health officials. Prosecutors called their probe the largest criminal investigation in Michigan history and said Snyder was the first governor to face misdemeanor charges over decisions made while leading the state.
"Let me be clear, there are no velvet ropes in our criminal justice system," Solicitor General Fadwa Hammoud said. "Nobody, no matter how powerful and how well connected, is above accountability when they commit a crime."
Hammoud's comments came at a press conference after nine former officials appeared in court in Genesee County. Michigan's former state health director Nick Lyon faced nine charges of involuntary manslaughter, while Baird was charged with extortion as Nessel's office on Thursday filed new allegations against former top state officials for their handling of the Flint water crisis.
The charges are tied to the lead contamination that resulted from Flint's water source switch to the Flint River in April 2014 and a 2014-15 Legionnaires' disease outbreak that was blamed for more than 90 cases, including 12 deaths.
Several of the nine people charged Thursday were close to the former Republican governor and were charged in a series of court arraignments Thursday morning.
The new charges come nearly a year and a half after other charges were filed against some of the same defendants re-charged Thursday. Nessel's office dropped the charges authorized by her Republican predecessor Attorney General Bill Schuette and started the investigation anew.
Schuette defended his investigation on social media Thursday, but said it would be improper for him to comment on the most recent charges.
"People in Flint deserve justice," Schuette said. "Their water was poisoned — 12 people died. Our independent team conducted an investigation by the book. I stand by the charges filed during my terms as Attorney General of Michigan."
Noah Hall, a Wayne State University law professor who was on the Schuette Flint investigative team, said there was initial frustration “that all the work we had done to hold government officials accountable was being tossed off and I was skeptical that anything new was going to come.”
But Hall said he was surprisingly pleased with the results of Nessel's prosecution team.
“Coming from the guy who got fired, I hope this means something," he said. "...Both seeing the charges and a little bit of factual allegations those charges are based on, it’s clear the attorney general’s team has done exactly what they promised.”
Hall said the new team has found additional evidence and they “put together an even stronger case against more defendants, and it looks like they’ve brought some more significant charges.”
Hall said he understands that people in Flint and elsewhere are frustrated that the former governor is only being charged with misdemeanors “when people died.
"I absolutely get that frustration, and I very much get the legitimate sense of injustice behind it that the loss of human life needs to be protected with something more than a $1,000 fine," he said.
But he added that he is “satisfied that the truth will get a chance to come out in court.”
The Thursday arraignments come more than six years after Flint's water source was switched under Snyder-appointed state emergency managers in 2014. The switch caused lead contamination of residents' drinking water when the river water wasn't properly treated with corrosion controls.
It's also been suspected to have been involved in 2014-15 outbreaks of Legionnaires' disease in the region that sickened more than 90 people and killed at least 12.
A more than $640 million settlement over Flint water-related civil litigation was reached last year and awaits court approval.
Former Gov. Rick Snyder
The most high-profile among the officials appearing in court Thursday was Snyder, who faces two charges of willful neglect of duty. Snyder appeared before 67th District Judge Christopher Odette at about 9:40 a.m., pleading not guilty.
Snyder and his attorney, Brian Lennon, both wearing masks, appeared over a video feed from a Genesee County jail booth. Lennon said Snyder was not guilty of the charges.
Snyder himself said only three words during the brief hearing. Odette asked him if he still lived in Michigan, and the former GOP governor responded, "Yes, your honor."
Odette set his bond at $10,000 for each of the two charges. He didn't require Snyder to surrender his passport but told him that he couldn't leave the state without the permission of the court.
The former governor's next court hearing will be Jan. 19 before Judge William H. Crawford II.
Snyder's charges, Hammoud said, are a result of his willful neglect of "his mandatory legal duties under the Michigan constitution and the Emergency Management Act, thereby failing to protect the health and safety of Flint's residents.
In a statement Thursday, Lennon said spending taxpayer dollars to pursue the "bogus" charges against Snyder would be a "travesty."
“We are confident Gov. Snyder will be fully exonerated if this flimsy case goes to trial," Lennon said. "Today’s charges do nothing to bring justice to the people of Flint. These unjustified allegations do nothing to resolve a painful chapter in the history of our state. Today’s actions merely perpetrate an outrageous political persecution.”
Each of Lyon's manslaughter charge carries a maximum penalty of 15 years and/or $7,500 fine. Lyon was originally charged with two counts of involuntary manslaughter under the special prosecutor appointed by Republican then-Attorney General Bill Schuette, but Nessel's office dropped the charges in June 2019 as it rebooted the Flint probe.
Lyon also was charged with a 10th count of willful neglect of duty, a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine. Lyon pleaded not guilty on all counts.
The charges, Hammoud said, are related to his "failures and grossly negligent performance of his legal duties while director of MDHHS."
Lyon's bond was set at $200,000 cash surety, and he is next scheduled to appear in court on Feb. 18.
Lyon's attorney Chip Chamberlain said his client did not make the decision to switch the city's water supply and made his decisions within the health department based on the advice of public health experts.
"Our hearts go out to Flint citizens who have endured the fallout from that decision," Chamberlain said in a statement. "But it does not help the people of Flint – or our criminal justice system — for the state to charge innocent people with crimes. Mr. Lyon is innocent."
Baird, one of Snyder's closest advisers who was also in charge of Flint's recovery effort, was charged with perjury during an investigative subpoena investigation, misconduct in office, obstruction of justice and extortion in relation to the Flint water case.
The perjury count carries up to 15 years in prison, while the misconduct charge has a penalty of up to five years in prison or $10,000 fine. The obstruction charge carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison and or a $10,000 fine, and the extortion charge carries a maximum penalty of up to 20 years and or a $10,000.
Baird improperly used state resources and personnel, Hammoud said, and "gave false statements under oath." He also attempted "to interfere or influence ongoing legal proceedings related to the Flint water crisis," she said.
Baird's extortion charge, Hammoud said, stems from a threat to "a state-appointed research team during their investigation into the source of the Legionnaire's disease outbreak in Genesee County."
Baird, a Chicago resident, is on the Eastern Michigan University Board of Regents.
Baird’s bond was set $15,000 10% bond on the perjury count, $75,000 personal recognizance on the misconduct charge, $75,000 personal recognizance on the obstruction charge, and $50,000 cash surety on the fourth count of extortion.
In a press release, Baird's attorney, Randall Levine, called the claims against his client "baseless."
"Mr. Baird is innocent of any wrongdoing and is being unfairly prosecuted by the state’s Democratic attorney general," Levine added.
Jarrod Agen, Snyder’s former chief of staff and Vice President Mike Pence’s former communications director, was charged with perjury during an investigative subpoena investigation.
Agen, lead spokesman for defense contractor Lockheed, pleaded not guilty to the charges. Agen is also Snyder's former director of communications.
His charge stem from "giving false statements under oath," Hammoud said.
Agen's bond was set at $35,000, 10% bond and he will appear in court next Feb. 18.
Dr. Eden Wells
Prosecutors also charged Dr. Eden Wells, former chief medical executive for the state Department of Health and Human Services. She now faces 12 charges, including nine counts of involuntary manslaughter.
Each of the involuntary manslaughter charges carry a maximum penalty of 15 years and/or $7,500 fine.
In addition, Wells was charged with two counts of misconduct in office and one count of willful neglect of duty. Wells pleaded not guilty.
The charges, Hammoud said, are related to "two separate incidences of preventing or attempting to prevent the distribution of public health information about Legionnaire's disease in Genesee County."
Former Flint finance director and state-appointed emergency manager Darnell Earley was arraigned on three counts of misconduct in office, punishable by up to five years in prison and/or $10,000 fine. Earley pleaded not guilty on both counts.
“This is an individual who’s a family man, he’s a lifelong resident of the state of Michigan who is in the twilight of his career but has served in government throughout the entire part … of his working life,” said Todd Russel Perkins, Earley’s lawyer.
Earley's charges relate "to city of Flint's finances as well as misinformation about the quality and safety of the Flint water supply," Hammoud said.
The former emergency manager was given a $75,000 personal recognizance bond and is next due in court on Feb. 18.
Former state-appointed emergency manager Gerald Ambrose was charged with four counts of misconduct in office, a felony punishable by up to five years and/or $10,000 fine.
Ambrose's charges stem from "acts related to the city of Flint's finances as well as Flint's water supply source," Hammoud said.
Bond was set at $75,000 personal recognizance. Ambrose is next scheduled to appear in court Feb. 18.
Former Flint Public Works Director Howard Croft, who faces the same charges as Snyder — two counts of willful neglect — appeared before Odette at about 9 a.m. Thursday.
Croft's charges, Hammoud said, stem from a willful neglect of "his duty to ensure the safety and quality of the Flint water supply."
Odette set $10,000 personal bonds for each count faced by Croft.
Nancy Peeler, who was the state's director of maternal, infant and early childhood home visiting for the health department, was charged Thursday with two felony counts of misconduct in office and one misdemeanor count of willful neglect of duty. The felonies carry a penalty of up to five years behind bars and a fine of up to $10,000.
Peeler's charges, Hammoud said, are related to "concealing and later misrepresenting data related to elevated blood lead levels in children in the city of Flint" and the failure to act on those blood lead levels.
Peeler allegedly buried a 2015 internal report on blood lead level data in Flint kids. In the initial round of charges, she faced five-year felony misconduct and conspiracy charges, along with misdemeanor neglect of duty. Those charges were dropped when Nessel's office restarted the Flint investigation.