Flint crisis charges raise scrutiny of EM law
Flint — Two former emergency financial managers — empowered by state law and appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration to run Flint — now face criminal charges for actions taken during their tenures that prosecutors say contributed to the city’s water crisis.
A yearlong Michigan Attorney General’s Office investigation into Flint’s water contamination issues has targeted the highest-ranking officials thus far. On Tuesday, investigators announced charges against former emergency managers Darnell Earley and Gerald Ambrose, as well as a pair of former city officials.
That brings the number of government officials charged in the crisis to 13. The probe also focused the harshest spotlight to date on Michigan’s emergency manager law and Snyder’s use of it.
Attorney General Bill Schuette aired harsh criticisms of the emergency manager system — which empowered Earley and Ambrose with broad authority over Flint to address the city’s crumbling finances — Tuesday during a news conference in Flint where he announced the latest charges. In particular, Schuette faulted what he called its “fixation” on financial figures over people as a main factor in creating the city’s long-running water issues.
“This fixation has cost lives,” he said. “This fixation came at the expense of protecting the health and safety of Flint. ... It’s all about numbers over people.”
As result, Earley and Ambrose face 20-year felony charges of false pretenses and conspiracy to commit false pretenses, as well as misconduct in office, a five-year felony. In addition, they face one-year misdemeanor counts of willful neglect of duty while in office.
Former Flint Public Works Director Howard Croft and his subordinate, Daugherty Johnson, also face the false pretenses charges.
Ambrose, Croft and Johnson were each arraigned on Tuesday, with all having not-guilty pleas entered on their behalf. Ambrose declined to comment while leaving the courthouse in downtown Flint.
Croft, who appeared initially without counsel, was briefly represented by attorney Frank Manley.
“He certainly believes that he is innocent of these charges and he expects to have his day in court,” Manley said.
‘Told it wasn’t ready’
In an early morning hearing in 67th District Court, Judge William H. Crawford II approved the charges after hearing from investigators, who spoke of a concerted effort to move the city from its traditional water source — the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department’s Lake Huron system to the Flint River. And they did so, according to investigators, knowing the city’s treatment plant was not up to the task.
Regarding Earley, who served as Flint’s emergency manager from 2013-15, Special Agent Jeff Seipenko said: “He knew the plant was not prepared to produce water and, nevertheless, allowed it to be provided to the public.”
Later, despite rising public concerns over health issues, both Earley and Ambrose, who served as emergency manager in 2015, failed to return Flint to its previous water source.
Regarding Croft and Johnson, Seipenko said the pair “put pressure on individuals at the (Flint) water treatment plant to get the plant to work, despite having been told it wasn’t ready.”
Later, both refused to reconnect to Detroit’s water system.
Many of Tuesday’s charges are linked to an administrative consent order issued by Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality that cleared the way for Flint to switch its water source to the Flint River in April 2014.
The river was meant to save Flint money until it could link up with the newly formed Karegnondi Water Authority and its pipeline system that draws from Lake Huron. But a failure to properly treat river water at the city’s plant resulted in lead contamination and, possibly, a deadly outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in 2014 and 2015.
In 2013, Flint leadership sought the order to help ease the city’s “ability to access bond funding” for the new Lake Huron water pipeline project.
Flint stated it needed to clean up its water treatment plant’s lime sludge dumping ground to get financing for the $285 million project, public records show. The city needed to show its plant was capable of properly treating water.
“Flint was under receivership and could not issue bonds or borrow money unless there was a fire, flood or calamity,” Schuette said during a news conference. “Earley and Ambrose engaged in a plan to execute an administrative consent order, which permitted the borrowing of tens of millions of dollars. ... This was supposed to clean up an environmental catastrophe — a lime sludge lagoon. Money did not go to cleanup. Instead, the tens of millions they borrowed were (put) toward building the KWA.”
Special Prosecutor Todd Flood put it more bluntly: “The sludge lagoon was not an emergency.”
Following Schuette’s news conference, Mayor Karen Weaver echoed the attorney general’s take on the impact of the emergency manager system on Flint.
“We have always thought that was the problem — that profit was put over the health and wellbeing of these people,” she said. “And this really gives voice to that ...
“That’s what was missing when we had the emergency manager in place. Our voice was taken.”
9 workers due in court
Meanwhile, cases against nine government workers — already criminally charged in the Flint water crisis — are scheduled for a court hearing on Wednesday in Flint.
Several current and former state employees face criminal charges for their alleged roles in the city’s water crisis. All face charges centering on an alleged failure to perform their roles in protecting public health.
Stephen Busch, Patrick Cook, Michael Glasgow, Corrine Miller, Nancy Peeler, Michael Prysby, Adam Rosenthal, Robert Scott and Liane Shekter-Smith are all scheduled for a hearing at 2 p.m. Wednesday before Judge Jennifer Manley with the 67th District Court.
The hearing is about the distribution of documents, specifically Michigan State Police documents, in preparation for a preliminary examination in the cases scheduled for March and April. The defendants are not required to attend, court officials said.
Glasgow struck a plea deal with the Michigan Attorney General’s Office in May. Manley took the plea under advisement while Glasgow continues to cooperate with the state’s criminal investigation into the water crisis.
Busch and Prysby are Department of Environmental Quality water regulators charged with misconduct and other crimes.
Rosenthal, a DEQ analyst, and Cook, a water regulator, face charges including misconduct in office and willful neglect of duty.
Schuette has accused Department of Health and Human Services workers Peeler and Scott of “burying” a report about elevated lead levels in the blood of Flint children in July 2015 — about two months before the department acknowledged there was a problem.
Fired DEQ municipal water chief Shekter-Smith faces charges stemming from Schuette’s probe.
Retired DHHS director of epidemiology Miller took a plea deal in September. She had been charged with failing to respond properly to an early report that city children were dealing with lead contamination. In addition, she was accused of instructing state health employees to delete emails pertaining to the report.
About the four charged
Howard Croft served as director of public works, Flint’s top utility official, from 2011 until he resigned his post in November 2015. His position oversaw Flint’s water treatment and distribution.
Former Utilities Administrator Daugherty Johnson worked under Croft. He and Croft recommended a contract in June 2013 to then-Emergency Manager Ed Kurtz that seemingly committed the city to use water from the Flint River, which ended up causing lead contamination and likely the spread of Legionella bacteria. Kurtz signed off on it.
Darnell Earley took over as Flint's emergency manager a few months after that resolution was approved. In March 2014, when he officially rebuffed an offer from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to provide Flint with water, Earley cited that earlier decision from before his tenure.
Flint began to draw corrosive river water on April 25, 2014, with Earley toasting the switch. He left in January 2015 to become the emergency manager for Detroit Public Schools and resigned in February.
Flint's last emergency manager, Gerald Ambrose, left office in April 2015. But during his tenure, residents complained about their water quality and the system had issues with trihalomethanes.
Also, a Michigan Department of Environmental Quality regulator sent a March 17, 2015, email to several Flint officials with tips on how to "limit the potential for legionella occurrence" in the plumbing of homes. Ambrose was copied on the email — documentation that may have alerted him about a spike in Legionnaires' disease cases.