State to pay criminal defense tabs of Flint’s ex-EMs

Michael Gerstein
The Detroit News

Lansing — Michigan taxpayers, including those in Flint, will be paying litigation and legal defense expenses for two former officials implicated in contributing to Flint’s lead-contaminated water crisis.

Attorney General Bill Schuette charged former Flint emergency managers Darnell Earley and Gerald Ambrose over their roles in switching the city from the Detroit water system to the temporary source of the Flint River while awaiting completion of the Karegnondi Water Authority pipeline.

The Governor’s Office confirmed that the Michigan Treasury Department will reimburse the city of Flint for legal and defense fees for former Flint Emergency Managers Darnell Earley and Gerald Ambrose. They are charged by Attorney General Bill Schuette with committing false pretenses and conspiracy to commit false pretenses, 20-year felonies.

They also face a charge of misconduct in office, a five-year felony, and a one-year misdemeanor count of willful neglect of duty.

Gov. Rick Snyder spokeswoman Anna Heaton said officials don’t have any estimates on costs for the defense. Heaton added the Governor’s Office does not yet know if there is any ceiling for their defense.

Detroit-based attorney Todd Russell Perkins, who is defending Earley in the new criminal case, said he could not yet confirm what his legal fees will be because “there has been nothing in writing yet.”

Gerald Ambrose served as Flint’s emergency manager in 2015.

Schuette charged Earley and Ambrose over their roles in switching Flint from the Detroit water system to the temporary source of the Flint River while the city awaited the completion of the Karegnondi Water Authority pipeline. The switch to corrosive river water resulted in the leaching of lead from the city’s pipes in drinking water, and is blamed by experts for a suspected link to Legionnaires’ disease outbreaks that killed 12 people in the Flint area.

Earley’s lawyer, Perkins, said he believes Earley will be “vindicated.” .

Municipalities typically cover legal bills for state-appointed emergency managers, even after they leave office. Ambrose’s contract explicitly stated that any expenses and attorney fees related to any action he took as emergency manager “shall be paid” by Flint.

But now the state will absorb the costs instead of Flint, Heaton confirmed, and pay for their criminal defense “even though Treasury has no legal responsibility to pay for them.”

Earley previously charged the city at least $75,000 for an attorney who helped prepare him for a March 2016 appearance and testimony before the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which closed its Flint investigation in December. Mayor Karen Weaver said at the time it was “not a bill we should be footing.”

“I share the concerns of Flint residents who continue to speak out regarding the city of Flint being responsible for the legal fees of former employees accused of actions that may have led to the water crisis,” Weaver said in a statement. “However, I understand that state and local law obligates the city to cover these costs.”

Flint’s mayor said the city will provide outside legal counsel for Ambrose and Earley because of “the many pressing issues” Flint is facing.

Weaver said the city is still seeking state aid to cover the cost of “remaining legal expenses as they are an additional financial burden faced by the city as a result of the ongoing water crisis.”

The charges against the former emergency managers are based in part on what special investigator Todd Flood called a “sham” administrative consent order that Schuette’s office had approved “as to form.”

Flood argues that Earley, Ambrose and two former city officials misled state officials about the severity of a longstanding environmental problem to secure borrowing capacity for the financially troubled city. Millions of dollars purportedly meant to address a lime sludge dump site off Flint’s Bray Road instead helped the city pay for a pipeline to connect with the new Karegnondi Water Authority.