Snyder ‘tired’ but ‘candid’ in Flint probe interview

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Gov. Rick Snyder maintains he did not learn the full extent of the Flint water crisis until late September, and nothing in the extensive evidence reviewed by an investigatory task force contradicted that claim, the group’s co-chair said Friday.

Snyder sat down with the five-member task force in January and was “candid” in the hourlong interview, said Ken Sikkema, the former Republican state Senate majority leader who works for Public Sector Consultants. The governor brought to the interview a Sept. 28 memo in which state environmental and health department officials told him there was no lead contamination crisis in the city.

“Everything else we look at — other interviews, all the other documentation, none of it contradicts what he said about his own personal knowledge,” Sikkema said Friday morning during a taping of “Off the Record” on WKAR-TV in East Lansing.

“As we point out, we’re critical in how he managed his information flow and his management style, and we think he needs to improve that.”

Snyder was one of 63 people interviewed by the task force, which released a final report in March that placed much of the blame for the Flint water crisis at the feet of state departments and state-appointed emergency managers.

The report noted that the governor and his staff members were aware of other Flint water issues before the lead contamination crisis came into focus. It criticized the administration’s “over-reliance” on a few staff members in two state departments.

Snyder was joined at the interview by top aides Valerie Brader and Jarrod Agen, but there was “no script,” and he did not receive task force questions in advance, Sikkema told reporters in an extended discussion after Friday’s taping.

“He seemed tired. He seemed — I don’t know if the word is ‘remorseful,’ but I take him at his word. He keeps saying I wish I had done things differently, he said that. … He seemed angry about the information he kept getting right up until that Sept. 28 time period,” Sikkema said.

Snyder appointed the task force in October, about three weeks after he publicly acknowledged the Flint crisis and began taking steps to address it.

The bipartisan panel included co-chair and Democratic former state Rep. Chris Kolb, Dr. Matthew Davis of the University of Michigan, Dr. Lawrence Reynolds of Mott Children’s Health Center and national water consultant Eric Rothstein.

Snyder pledged “complete independence” for the task force and support if needed and requested, Sikkema said.

“The governor fulfilled his promise on those two things,” he said, explaining the task force asked for help in securing interviews with Flint water plant officials but otherwise kept the administration at “arm’s length” during the probe.

A Dec. 29 letter from the task force to Snyder prompted the resignation of Department of Environmental Quality Director Dan Wyant. The task force told the governor the department bore primary responsibility for the Flint water contamination crisis and must be held accountable for its failures.

The task force also criticized the Department of Health and Human Services, both for its initial analysis of data on childhood blood lead levels as well as inadequate coordination and communication regarding spikes in cases of deadly Legionnaires’ disease.

Sikkema said he was not surprised by Wyant’s resignation but declined to weigh in on the fate of health department director Nick Lyon, saying he wanted to see the results of an investigation by the Michigan Auditor General and the department’s inspector general.

Top Snyder aide Rich Baird approached the task force and asked it to conduct that “deeper dive” of the health department, said Sikkema, who added that members did not feel they had the tools to conduct that investigation.

“We said we agree you should do it,” Sikkema said of the health department probe. “We didn’t think we’re equipped to do it.”

Lyon last month disputed the task force’s assertion that he attended a January 2015 meeting with Genesee County health officials and ordered the department to “conduct and complete” its evaluation of the Legionnaires’ outbreak.

“That meeting didn’t take place,” Lyon told a legislative committee investigating the Flint water crisis in sworn testimony. “I had a conversation with internal staff, who took that back to the local health department.”

Lyon confirmed that he was aware of the Flint-area Legionnaires’ cases in January 2015 but said the situation was not consistently elevated to his level until later in the year. Snyder says he learned about the outbreak two days before he publicly disclosed it in January 2016.

During his “Off the Record” interview, Sikkema said the task force finding was based on a description of the Legionnaires’ meeting provided to the Governor’s Office by a Department of Environmental Quality staffer.

He said he believes Lyons’ subsequent explanation that the director was not at the meeting but suggested the single “blemish” should not cast doubt on the larger task force report.

“The issue there was whether or not Director Lyon and HHS knew about the Legionnaire’s outbreak a year before they told the governor,” Sikkema said. “Nick Lyon has said yes, he did know.”

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