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Special counsel: Manslaughter charge possible in Flint

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau
From left: Deputy investigator Ellis Stafford, Retired Detroit FBI Chief Andrew Arena, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette and special counsel Todd Flood talk about their ongoing Flint water contamination probe on Tuesday.

Lansing — Todd Flood, special counsel for the state attorney general’s office investigation into the Flint water crisis, said Tuesday the probe could lead to a variety of criminal charges or civil actions.

“We’re here to investigate what possible crimes there are, anything to the involuntary manslaughter or death that may have happened to some young person or old person because of this poisoning, to misconduct in office,” he said. “We take this very seriously.”

Flood joined Attorney General Bill Schuette, chief investigator Andrew Arena and deputy chief investigator Ellis Stafford for a media round table Tuesday in Lansing, where they provided an update on the investigation launched last month.

The probe will look at state and local government officials to determine whether any state laws were violated. There is no clear timeline for how long the investigation will take.

“It’s not far-fetched” to imagine involuntary manslaughter charges in the case, Flood told reporters, if the investigation links “gross negligence” or a “breach of duty” to a death in Flint, where at least nine people have died of Legionnaires’ disease after the city switched to Flint River water in April 2014.

Flood could also pursue restitution for Flint residents affected by the water contamination crisis, he said, suggesting he could target private companies or governments involved in the man-made disaster.

Schuette has assembled what he called a “top-shelf” team for the probe, led by Flood and Arena, who ran several major investigations as head of the Detroit FBI Office until his retirement in 2012. Arena came out of retirement, he said, because the Flint water investigation is “the biggest case in the history of the state.”

The team will include nine full-time investigators, according to Arena, including former state and Detroit police officers. Outside experts, such as cyber forensic scientists, could be brought in as needed.

Schuette said it is hard to say how much the investigation will cost, noting that some people will earn as little as $20 an hour. But Flood will earn $400 an hour as special prosecutor, according to Schuette, who noted that is the same rate special assistant attorneys general earned Detroit’s 2014 bankruptcy case.

“We’re not going to shortchange justice,” Schuette said. “We’re not going to do justice on the cheap. We’re going to have a full and complete investigation, and where the truth goes, that’s where we’ll go.”

Some state lawmakers, including Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, have questioned the need for an attorney general’s investigation and the price tag it may bring. But Schuette said he is confident the Legislature will provide funding, if requested.

Flood, a former Wayne County assistant prosecutor who now operates a private practice in Royal Oak, said he did not think anyone in the Legislature would want to be seen as impeding the probe.

“This is not some Jones Day firm charge,” he said, referencing the pricey Washington, D.C., office that represented Detroit in the municipal bankruptcy case. “I’m charging a lot less than I normally would on a significant amount of my clients. At the end of the day, we’ve put together an A-team of investigators that you can’t find anywhere.”

Critics continue to question the objectivity of the investigation, noting that Flood has made political contributions to both Schuette and Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, a fact he has said will not affect his judgment in the case. Flood also donated to former Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm.

"Bill Schuette's ‘independent investigation’ seems more focused on rewarding campaign contributors with state contracts than getting to the bottom of why Flint's water was poisoned with lead," said Melanie McElroy, executive director of Common Cause Michigan, in a statement.

Schuette announced the investigation last month and detailed steps to create a “firewall” within his office, which is also defending Snyder and state departments in a series of lawsuits brought by Flint residents exposed to contaminated drinking water.

Because he is involved in the investigation, Schuette is not part of the team defending Snyder in a federal class-action lawsuit. But his office, citing a “potential conflict of interest” between the administration and other defendants, has asked to withdraw as legal counsel for seven Department of Environmental Quality employees, including one recently fired by the state over the Flint water crisis. Those individuals would have the opportunity to obtain new attorneys paid for by the state.

Flint switched off Detroit’s Lake Huron water supply in April 2014 and began using the Flint River as an interim source while construction continued on a new regional pipeline. Residents quickly began complaining about water’s color and odor, and independent experts eventually discovered elevated lead levels in the water and blood of children.

The state, which initially downplayed concerns, confirmed the lead findings in October and began taking steps to address the crisis. Department of Environmental Quality Director Dan Wyant resigned in late December amidst criticism over his agency’s failure to ensure proper corrosion controls were added to Flint River water, which had leached lead from aging underground pipes.

“To try to capture in words the tragedy of what occurred in Flint is almost beyond description,” Schuette said. “My job as attorney general is to enforce the law, and we’re going to determine what laws were violated.”

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