Flint resident seeks grand jury probe of Gov. Snyder

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — A Flint resident is requesting a one-person grand jury to investigate whether Gov. Rick Snyder committed criminal misconduct in office by using public funds to hire private attorneys representing him in criminal probes of the city’s water contamination crisis.

Attorney Mark Brewer, former chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party, filed a complaint late Tuesday in Ingham County Circuit Court on behalf of Keri Webber, who said members of her family have suffered health complications from lead exposure and Legionnaires’ disease.

Webber told The Detroit News she is “appalled” that taxpayers are being forced to fund the governor’s legal team while Flint residents pay medical bills and still cannot drink their municipal water without a filter. She personally uses only bottled water.

“I really do not think that belongs on the Michigan people at all,” Webber said of the governor’s legal bills.

Snyder’s office says his use of private attorneys is “legally sound” because he is facing lawsuits in his official capacity as governor. But Brewer said the complaint targets Snyder’s “unilateral hiring” of Warner Norcross & Judd “to represent him in criminal proceedings arising out of Flint.”

The Michigan-based firm stands to earn up to $2 million in taxpayer funds under its current contract for what the state has called “legal services related to records management issues and investigations.”

Snyder is not facing any criminal charges, but Attorney General Bill Schuette has so far charged several state employees as part of his wide-ranging investigation of the Flint water crisis.

Brewer alleges Snyder did not have the proper legal authority to enter into the contract, circumvented established procurement rules and violated a constitutional prohibition against public officials engaging in transactions that create a conflict of interest.

“I can’t think of a clearer conflict of interest than the governor signing a contract to provide his own personal legal defense … without anybody providing oversight,” Brewer said.

Snyder’s office defends attorney costs

Snyder spokeswoman Anna Heaton on Wednesday defended the governor’s use of private attorneys.

“Due to the amount of legal work required, it was necessary to retain outside counsel to assist lawyers from the Attorney General’s office in responses to lawsuits and large-scale document production,” Heaton said. “Since these lawsuits are brought against the office of the governor in an official capacity, it is legally sound to use public dollars to respond to them.”

Warner Norcross & Judd is one of two private legal firms Snyder has hired in response to the Flint water crisis. Barris, Sott, Denn & Driker also could earn up to $1.4 million providing “legal services related to civil litigation about municipal drinking water” in the city.

The lawsuit raises interesting questions over state-funded private attorneys, said Wayne State University Law Professor Peter Henning, but absent evidence the governor diverted or misspent any money, he did not see clear grounds for misconduct-in-office charges.

“As the court has defined it, that’s misfeasance, malfeasance or nonfeasance,” said Henning, a former federal prosecutor. “It’s hard to see how this would rise to the level of a criminal violation.”

The State Administrative Board must typically approve contracts that total more than $250,000, but a 2011 resolution exempts contracts approved by the governor. The board reviewed, but did not approve the Warner Norcross & Judd contract, according to the lawsuit.

“There should be an after-the-fact review when the bills are submitted,” Henning said. “What are the parameters of the representation and of the billings within those parameters? When you’re talking about taxpayer money, it’s fair to raise questions about how it’s being spent.”

Snyder and legislators have so far approved more than $234 million in state aid for Flint. And as the The Detroit News reported Wednesday, state spending on litigation has also ballooned as a result of the water contamination crisis.

Budgets for the current and past fiscal year included $17 million in appropriations to the state Legal Services Fund, up from $4 million the previous two years. Through Sept. 1, the state had spent roughly $1.4 million from the fund on Snyder’s private legal team.

Circuit Court to review request

The formal request filed Wednesday means Ingham County Circuit Court judges will vote whether to open a grand jury investigation and pick who would lead the probe.

Grand jury investigations are secret but any possible indictments that result would be public, Brewer said, noting Snyder could be required to testify.

Several Ingham County judges have strong ties to the Democratic Party, but Brewer said the complaint was filed in Lansing because it is home to the state Capitol and governor’s office where the contract was likely signed.

Webber grew emotional in a Wednesday morning press conference as she described her motivation to file the complaint. Her 16-year-old daughter and husband have both shown signs of lead exposure, she said, and her 21-year-old daughter last fall survived deadly Legionnaires’ disease.

With medical bills mounting, she called it a “one more kick” for Flint residents to see the governor use taxpayer funds for private defense attorneys.

“It’s one more slap in the face. It’s one more insult. We’ve been through everything,” Webber said.

Webber had underground pipes at her home replaced Sept. 28, a process she said was funded by out-of-state donations, not the city or state. She expects months of testing before her family will learn whether their water is now safe to drink.

Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, recently introduced legislation that would prohibit the governor or other top state officials from using state-funded private attorneys in such cases.

“Those millions of dollars could be better spent replacing more pipes and hiring more school nurses,” Ananich said Wednesday in a statement.