Snyder’s Flint water legal bills nearly triple to $3.4M

Chad Livengood, and Jonathan Oosting

Lansing — Gov. Rick Snyder’s office has racked up $3.4 million in legal bills from private laws firms representing the governor and his staff in the Flint water crisis — almost tripling the original $1.2 million budget.

Snyder’s office disclosed Thursday that two law firms billed the governor for $1.2 million in work in February, March and April and that another $2.2 million is needed to pay legal bills for May, June and July.

Gov. Rick Snyder’s office has racked up $3.4 million in legal bills from private laws firms representing the governor and his staff in the Flint water crisis — almost tripling the original $1.2 million budget.

All told, Snyder’s office and three state departments have spent a combined $5 million to date on private attorneys representing employees under investigation or named as defendants in multiple civil lawsuits related to Flint’s water contamination, according to records compiled by The Detroit News.

To pay for the mounting legal bills for the governor’s office, a $400,000 contract for Detroit attorney Eugene Driker’s law firm has been increased to $1.4 million, Snyder spokeswoman Anna Heaton said Thursday.

And a $800,000 contract with the Grand Rapids law firm Warner, Norcross & Judd LLP, has been hiked to $2 million to cover bills mostly related to the hundreds of thousands of pages of documents the Snyder administration has made public about Flint’s water crisis, Heaton said.

Warner, Norcross & Judd also is providing the governor and his staff with criminal defense attorneys as Attorney General Bill Schuette continues to investigate Flint’s lead-contaminated water.

Snyder has the power to unilaterally increase the contracts without approval of the State Administrative Board, which has already approved $4.9 million for Schuette’s investigation.

“A huge portion of their costs were attributable to document review and production for the governor’s office website,” Heaton told The News.

The $3.4 million legal tab for the governor’s office doesn’t account for additional costs it may incur for this month and beyond.

“We just don’t know what, if any, of the future costs will be,” Heaton said.

The News reported Monday that Schuette’s special Flint investigation team spent more than $2 million through mid-June on lawyers, retired police officers and support personnel investigating Flint’s water crisis.

Michigan Democratic Party Chairman Brandon Dillon said Thursday that state legislators should move to block Snyder from using public funds to cover his mounting legal bills or strip funding from the executive office budget.

As a political figure, the governor should set up a legal defense fund to pay his Flint legal bills without public dollars, Dillon said.

The Michigan Secretary of State’s Office said in April that Snyder is not obligated to set up such a fund if his defense costs are paid by the state.

Snyder has covered at least one Flint-related legal bill with private dollars, using one of his tax-exempt funds to pay a Washington, D.C.-based law firm that helped him prepare for and follow up on his March testimony before the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

Federal records show Snyder paid $190,000 in April and June to the DLA Piper firm through the Governor’s Club, a fund established under Section 527 of the Internal Revenue Service code.

While the Governor’s Club reports contributors, records show Snyder previously shifted $250,000 into the account from a fund not required to disclose donors.

The Department of Environmental Quality has spent nearly $1.4 million providing private attorneys to state workers, some of whom Schuette has charged criminally.

Two law firms representing suspended water regulator Stephen Busch have billed taxpayers nearly $264,000 to represent him in civil lawsuits, depositions and criminal charges of allegedly botching and covering up Flint’s lead-tainted water problems.

The DEQ says it has spent more than $320,000 on private attorneys representing former Director Dan Wyant, and about $273,000 for attorneys to represent former communications director Brad Wurfel in a litany of lawsuits filed against them.

Wyant and Wurfel resigned in late December after a Snyder-appointed task force criticized the department’s handling of rampant complaints about Flint’s drinking water before the discovery last fall of high levels of toxic lead.

Another law firm has billed the DEQ for $119,057 to represent Liane Shekter Smith, who was fired in February as head of the DEQ’s Office of Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance. Shekter Smith supervised Busch and other DEQ employees who worked on Flint’s switch to Flint River water in April 2014 that eventually caused lead to leach from old pipes.

Last month, Schuettte charged Shekter Smith with a felony misconduct in office charge and misdemeanor of willful neglect of duty.

The DEQ also has spent a combined $247,532 for attorneys to represent municipal water regulators Mike Prysby, Adam Rosenthal and Patrick Cook, who have been charged by Schuette for allegedly tampering with lead test results to make Flint’s water appear to be safe to drink when it wasn’t.

The Department of Health and Human Services has spent $246,383 on attorneys to represent its employees in the Flint crisis, spokeswoman Jennifer Eisner said.

The largest bill for an individual employee was $38,216 for department Director Nick Lyon, according to a spreadsheet the department released Thursday.

The health and welfare department has spent a combined $15,304 for private lawyers representing retired state epidemiologist Corrine Miller and childhood program director Nancy Peeler.

Miller, Peeler and lead prevention data manager Robert Scott were all recently charged criminally by Schuette, who claimed the trio “buried” test results for Flint children showing elevated levels of lead in their bloodstream.