Schuette: Workers hid discovery of lead in blood

Chad Livengood, and Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Flint — Criminal charges leveled Friday against six current and former state employees center around allegations they altered or concealed alarming reports showing high levels of toxic lead in Flint’s water and the bloodstreams of the city’s children.

Attorney General Bill Schuette’s prosecutors contend much of the cover-up occurred on or around the same day in late July last year.

From the campus of University of Michigan, Flint, MI., Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, right, announces 18 additional charges against four current and two former employees from two state departments in dealing with Flint water July 29, 2016. With him are Chief Investigator, FBI Special Agent Andy Arena, center, and Genesee County Prosecutor David Leyton, left.

At the Department of Health and Human Services, prosecutors allege employees Nancy Peeler and Robert Scott “buried” an epidemiologist’s July 28, 2015, report showing a significant year-over-year spike in blood lead levels in Flint children.

Corrine Miller, the state’s top epidemiologist, later ordered a DHHS employee to delete emails about that July 28 report and prevented action to alert top state health officials and the public, Schuette said.

A Genesee County judge on Friday authorized charges against Miller, Peeler and Scott for misconduct in office, conspiring to commit misconduct in office and willful neglect of duty related to allegedly concealing or disregarding the test results.

Special Prosecutor Todd Flood’s investigation also found that on same date, three municipal water regulators at the Department of Environmental Quality altered a water-testing report to exclude some samples to keep overall lead levels under the federal limit.

Schuette filed charges against DEQ water quality analyst Adam Rosenthal on Friday for allegedly altering the report in coordination with water regulators Stephen Busch and Michael Prysby, who were charged with similar misconduct crimes in April as part of the attorney general’s wide-ranging investigation.

“These individuals concealed the truth,” Schuette said. “They were criminally wrong to do so.”

Prosecutor won’t say if Snyder has been interviewed

Flood said Friday he’s still exploring whether there was active coordination between the two state agencies last summer to cover-up the lead contamination months before it exploded into an unprecedented public health crisis.

“You have two agencies manipulating reports on the same day,” Flood said at a news conference announcing the new criminal charges. “In that lock step going to stage left, that seems significant to me. But I’m going to let that play out in our investigation and in the courtroom.”

In addition to Rosenthal, Schuette on Friday filed criminal charges against DEQ water regulator Patrick Cook and fired municipal water chief Liane Shekter Smith.

Genesee County District Judge Nathaniel C. Perry III authorized the charges and warrants for the arrests of the six current and former state employees Friday morning.

Schuette said arrogance and viewing people in Flint as expendable were the motives of the employees criminally charged.

“Their offenses vary but there is an overall theme and repeated pattern,” Schuette said. “Each of these individuals attempted to bury, or cover up, to downplay or hide information that contradicted their own narrative their story. Their story was there was nothing wrong with Flint water and it was perfectly safe to use.”

Flint Mayor Karen Weaver said she appreciated the move to hold people accountable.

“The decision to file more criminal charges today is hopefully another step toward justice for the City of Flint,” she said in a statement. “Still, it's sad to think people hired to make sure standards are met may have known there was a problem with the water in Flint.”

Charges against DHHS’ Peeler and Scott center around a report epidemiologist Cristin Larder prepared on July 28, 2015, showing elevated blood lead levels compared to the summer of 2014, according Jeff Seipenko, an investigator in Schuette’s office.

“Instead of releasing the report that indicated a significant problem, (Peeler) buried it and produced a bogus report that she and Robert Scott prepared,” Schuette said Friday.

Scott and Peeler work in the health department’s childhood lead poisoning prevention program. The attorney general’s investigation found the pair created a “non-scientific” graph illustrating lead levels in Flint children without applying a proper statistical analysis, Seipenko said.

“Peeler, relying on this unscientific graph, drafted and sent an unfounded email to MDHHS management that inappropriately concluded that the switch in water sources was not the cause of elevated lead levels in Flint children,” Seipenko told Perry in court on Friday.

Miller, then director of the bureau of epidemiology, allegedly ordered a DHHS employee to “take no action and disregard Larder’s findings,” Seipenko said.

“This put the children of Flint in the cross hairs of drinking poison,” Schuette said. “They ignored them and ignored the truth about what was happening in the city of Flint.”

Rosenthal faces charges of misconduct in office, conspiracy to tamper with evidence and or engage in misconduct, tampering with evidence and willful neglect of duty of a public official. He was in charge of monitoring Flint’s water testing reports between April 2014 and October 2015 when the city used corrosive Flint River water.

“Emails have revealed that defendant Rosenthal and others intentionally manipulated Lead and Copper Rule monitoring reports to conceal the fact that the lead level in the water being consumed by the citizens of Flint exceeded the action level of 15 parts per billion,” Seipenko said.

“Despite knowing the water distributed by the Flint Water Treatment posed significant health risks to the citizens of Flint, defendant Rosenthal disregarded his public duties and took no affirmative action to protect the public health.”

Cook, a water treatment engineer, was charged with misconduct in office, conspiracy to engage in misconduct in office and willful neglect of duty for allegedly working with Rosenthal to manipulate a Lead and Copper Rule report on the levels of lead in Flint’s water last summer, Seipenko said.

Cook was in charge of interpreting the federal Lead and Copper Rule and “misled” the Environmental Protection Agency about how Flint’s water was being treated, Seipenko said.

DEQ emails released by Gov. Rick Snyder’s office have shown that Cook actively dismissed concerns raised in April 2015 by EPA lead expert Miguel Del Toral about Flint’s lack of corrosion control chemicals that prevent lead from leaching into the water from old pipes.

“The constant second-guessing of how we interpret and implement our rules is getting tiresome,” Cook said in an April 27, 2015 internal DEQ email.

Cook proposed silencing Del Toral, who has since been hailed as a whistleblower.

DEQ and DHHS released a joint statement Friday indicating Peeler, Scott, Cook and Rosenthal have been suspended without pay. Miller retired from DHHS in mid-April of this year, department spokeswoman Jennifer Eisner said.

Shekter Smith, the former chief of DEQ’s Office of Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance, is the only state employee who has been fired for her role in Flint’s water crisis. She faces charges of misconduct in office and willful neglect of duty for allegedly ignoring mounting problems with river water between April 2014 and October 2015.

Liane Shekter Smith

Before the presence of lead was exposed by Del Toral and Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards, Flint’s water was brownish, foul smelling and hampered by spikes in E. coli bacteria and a carcinogen known as TTHM.

“Evidence has shown that throughout this time period, defendant Shekter Smith intentionally mislead and took affirmative steps to conceal from her supervisors at the MDEQ and the public the safety and severe health risk associated with using the water,” Seipenko told the judge on Friday.

In April, Schuette also filed criminal charges against Flint water utility administrator Michael Glasgow for his roles in not requiring Flint’s water to be treated with corrosion-controlling chemicals.

In May, Glasgow struck a plea deal with Schuette’s office, pleading no contest to a misdemeanor charge of willful neglect of duty after agreeing to cooperate with state and federal investigators.

DEQ employees charged

Liane Shekter-Smith, former chief of drinking water and municipal assistance, of Marshall

■ One count of misconduct in office, a five-year felony

■ One count of willful neglect of duty, a one-year misdemeanor

Adam Rosenthal, DEQ water quality analyst, of East Lansing

■ One count misconduct in office, a five-year felony

■ One count of willful neglect of duty, a one-year misdemeanor

■ One count tampering with evidence, a four-year felony

■ One count of conspiracy/tampering with evidence, a four-year felony

Patrick Cook, DEQ specialist for community water drinking unit, of DeWitt

■ One count of willful neglect of duty, a one-year misdemeanor

■ One count misconduct in office, a five-year felony

■ One count of conspiracy, a five-year felony

DHHS employees charged

Nancy Peeler, director, program for maternal, infant and early childhood home visiting, of Midland

■ One count misconduct in office, a five-year felony

■ One count of conspiracy, a five-year felony

■ One count of willful neglect of duty, a one-year misdemeanor

Robert Scott, data manager for the healthy homes and lead prevention program, of Haslett

■ One count misconduct in office, a five-year felony

■ One count of conspiracy, a five-year felony

■ One count of willful neglect of duty, a one-year misdemeanor

Corinne Miller, former director of the bureau of epidemiology and state epidemiologist, of DeWitt

■ One count misconduct in office, a five-year felony

■ One count of conspiracy, a five-year felony

■ One count of willful neglect of duty, a one-year misdemeanor