Top Snyder aides questioned DEQ resignation over Flint
Lansing — Michigan’s lieutenant governor and outgoing chief of staff both were disappointed by the resignation of Department of Environmental Quality Director Dan Wyant over the Flint water crisis, according to emails released this weekend by the administration.
“I didn’t realize Dan’s resignation was on the table,” Lt. Gov. Brian Calley said in a Dec. 29 email to deputy chief of staff Elizabeth Clement. “I know it was probably necessary from a public perception standpoint, but it is a terrible shame. He’s probably the best department head we had and it seems pretty clear he was given bad information for a period of time.”
Snyder had announced Wyant’s resignation earlier that day as a response to initial findings by the governor-appointed Flint Water Task Force and had written him a letter saying that the environmental department was “primarily responsible” for what happened in Flint and had “failed in its responsibility” to ensure safe drinking water.
Communications director Jared Agen, who took over as the governor’s chief of staff last month, had sent a 2:03 p.m. email to all executive office staff explaining that the governor would take steps to address the task force findings.
“As part of this process, Dan Wyant … has offered his resignation, and the governor has reluctantly decided to accept it,” Agen wrote. “There are likely to be other personnel changes in DEQ as well.”
Outgoing chief of staff Dennis Muchmore sent an email to Agen less than two hours later, saying he had just learned about Wyant’s pending resignation and “would have argued privately against this very strongly.”
Wyant, who worked for the Engler and Granholm administrations prior to Snyder’s, “is one of the most exceptional directors in state government history over the last forty years,” Muchmore wrote.
“… I’m not sure why this decision was made but if it’s only optics, keep in mind that finding a replacement who has the trust of the business community will be very difficult,” he said.
The emails were among thousands made public this weekend by the Governor’s Office, which is not subject to the state’s Freedom of Information Act but decided to voluntarily release internal emails related to the Flint water crisis.
Muchmore worked for the Governor’s Office through Jan. 20, when he resigned and returned to a lobbying job in Lansing. The email exchange shows Agen had already taken over the job by late December.
“Welcome to the job, it’s one of those where tomorrow you’ll have another set of even more ugly decisions,” Muchmore told Agen.
By letting go of Wyant, Muchmore said, the administration was “striking at the very heart of one of the most difficult agencies in state government to manage.”
Agen responded to Muchmore 13 minutes later, saying, “I don’t disagree with anything you said” and explaining that Wyant’s resignation was discussed late the night before and finalized that morning.
“It was not just optics, but I can get into more when we talk next.”
Snyder, in announcing Wyant’s resignation, also apologized to Flint residents. Department of Natural Resources Director Keith Creagh took over for Wyant at the DEQ and remains the interim director.
Wyant had acknowledged in October that department staff applied the wrong standards of the federal Lead and Copper Rule. The state should have required Flint to add corrosion control treatments when it began using Flint River water in April 2104. The harsh water ended up corroding aging pipes and leaching lead into the drinking water.
But others also questioned the decision to replace Wyant.
Snyder’s deputy director of legislative affairs forwarded to Agen a text message from Sen. Jim Stamas, R-Midland, who expressed his “STRONG DISAPPOINTMENT” over Wyant’s resignation, suggesting the administration was caving to pressure from critics.
“This is pure Dem politic, not an acceptable way to move our state forward,” said Stamas, who is chairman of a new legislative committee that will review the Flint water crisis. He said last week the panel will not exercise subpoena power for what he said will function as oversight hearings, not an investigation.
Agen said he appreciated the “support of Dan, but we cannot say this is dem politics.”
Marc Edwards, a Virginia Tech professor whose research helped expose the crisis, previously told The Detroit News that Wyant should not have been the one on the chopping block.
“I’m glad that someone is sorry and someone is being held accountable,” Edwards said in late December. “But Dan Wyant would not be at the top of my list — or even on the list. I feel strongly he was misled by his staff at every point, and he was put in publicly embarrassing situations by the staff’s misinformation.”
Calley, who had read Edwards’ comments in The News that day and referenced them, offered a similar assessment.
“That’s the danger in managing a department of technical professions,” he wrote. “You have to trust your people. In this case, it cost their kids their health and a good man’s reputation. I hope that employees who actually did wrong will be terminated, rather than just transferred to different areas of the state.”
Snyder’s task force, whose initial findings were critical of the state environmental department, is expected to release its final report in coming weeks.
Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, questioned the makeup of the committee when it was announced in October, noting the members did not have extensive track records conducting investigations.
Ananich had suggested adding former Democratic U.S. Sen. Carl Levin to the panel, a request that Muchmore said the state should consider.
Muchmore, in an Oct. 22 email, told Snyder executive assistant Allison Scott that Levin would work well with the task force’s co-chairs, former Republican state Senate Majority Leader Ken Sikkema and former Democratic Rep. Chris Kolb.
“Ananich wants you to add Carl Levin to the task force on Flint Water. You might want to consider that,” Muchmore wrote. “Carl isn’t going to go to every meeting, he’s a pretty fair individual with a long relationship with Sikkema and Kolb, and Ananich can hardly balk at the findings if Carl is inside the tent.”
Levin, who now works with Muchmore at the Honigman law firm, was left off of the five-man task force.
Staff Writer Chad Livengood contributed.