Snyder defends Lyon as Schuette probes health agency

Chad Livengood, and Jonathan Oosting

Lansing — Gov. Rick Snyder on Wednesday defended state health and human services director Nick Lyon as Attorney General Bill Schuette continues to investigate the role Lyon’s department played in the Flint water crisis.

Snyder was asked at a news conference Wednesday whether he believes Lyon broke any laws in his department’s year-long concealment of an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in Genesee County that resulted in 12 deaths in 2014 and 2015.

“I put Nick Lyon in that position to begin with, and I continue to support him as director of the department,” Snyder said.

Asked if Lyon should be charged criminally, the governor replied: “Again, I’m not going to speculate on that. That’s the role for the attorney general.”

Snyder dismissed questions about Lyon facing criminal charges as “speculation.”

“I respect the attorney general’s investigation, and we’re waiting for outcomes and results from that,” he said. “As that progresses, we’ll take appropriate actions. ... Let’s just let the investigation follow its path.”

Lyon attended the governor’s news conference that updated reporters on the progress in Flint’s recovery from a public health crisis that began a year ago this week when the Snyder administration first publicly acknowledged Flint’s lead-contaminated water problems.

After the governor’s news conference, Lyon quickly left the room followed by multiple reporters.

Lyon’s future as head of the Department of Health and Human Services has been a lingering question in Lansing for months because of the agency’s role in the Legionnaires’ outbreak and criminal charges against three department employees for allegedly concealing reports showing high levels of lead in the blood of Flint children.

In late December, Snyder forced former Department of Environmental Quality Director Dan Wyant to resign for the DEQ’s role in not requiring Flint to treat its corrosive river water to prevent lead from leaching into the drinking water supply.

In mid-January, Lyon disclosed the Legionnaires’ outbreak to Snyder, at least a year after Lyon learned of the public health threat, according to emails disclosed by the Snyder administration.

Corinne Miller, a retired director of the state’s bureau of epidemiology, pled no contest to a misdemeanor charge of neglect of duty in office on Sept. 14 in exchange for providing information to Schuette’s investigators.

The attorney general told reporters on Thursday the Miller plea deal could lead to more indictments, calling it a “very significant” agreement.

Miller agreed to assist investigators in exchange for reduced charges, according to the agreement, which describes her handling of a Legionnaires’ report and interactions with two unnamed suspects in January 2015, nearly a year before Snyder would publicly announce the outbreak.

The plea deal indicates that “Suspect 1” directed Miller on Jan. 28, 2015, to provide a report on the 2014 outbreak and to meet with “Suspect 2.” She compiled data “to demonstrate an epidemic” and, in her report to both suspects, included graphs showing the outbreak was isolated to Genesee County.

“Further, the Defendant reported to Suspect 2 that the outbreak was related to the switch in the water source from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to the Flint River,” according to the court agreement.

Suspect 1 and Suspect 2 interacted with Miller on the issue on the same day Communicable Disease Division Director Jim Collins sent Miller and three higher-ups at HHS an email detailing “some elevated levels of Legionella infection that seems, anecdotally at least, to coincide with the change over in Flint water.”

The other recipients of the email were then-HHS Chief Deputy Director Tim Becker, Deputy Director Susan Moran and Matthew Davis, who was then the state’s chief medical executive.

Becker left the department in July and Davis left in April 2015, despite repeatedly denying he had any knowledge of the outbreak of Legionnaires’, which is a respiratory disease contracted from Legionella bacteria.

According to her plea deal, Miller was notified that some of the Legionnaires’ victims had died due to complications from Legionnaires’ cases and “along with others from the MDHHS, knew that unless that state provided proper notice… it could be reasonably foreseeable that other innocent victims could be infected.”

That notice did not come until early 2016, almost a full year after the original report — and three months after a second wave of the Legionnaires’ outbreak ended. Snyder publicly announced the outbreak on Jan. 13, saying he had only recently learned of the statistics.

Schuette, speaking with reporters last Thursday, declined to name Suspects 1 or 2 and defended the overall pace of the investigation, which he launched more than nine months ago. Schuette’s Flint water investigation team has so far charged eight state employees and one city worker, who also negotiated a plea deal.

“I think what everybody wants is thorough, complete, exhaustive, speedy, and we’re doing just that,” Schuette said. “We’re going to go right where the facts take us. This is by the book. Nobody targeted, nobody off the table.”

Snyder appointed Lyon to run the Department of Community Health in September 2014 and named him interim director of the Department of Human Services in December of that year. The governor merged the departments in early 2015 and appointed Lyon as director.


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Twitter: @ChadLivengood