Lyon, Wells lawyers vow vigorous fight on Flint charges
Flint — Lawyers for Michigan’s health and human services director and the state’s chief medical officer vowed Thursday to vigorously fight charges against their clients including involuntary manslaughter and obstruction of justice after a bond hearing here in 67th District Court.
State health director Nick Lyon is accused of misconduct in office and involuntary manslaughter, becoming the highest-ranking member of Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration to be targeted in the criminal probe of the Flint’s lead-contaminated water crisis by Attorney General Bill Schuette. He was released on a $15,000 bond and required to pay 10 percent of the amount.
Lyon attorney Charles Chamberlain said his client plans to vigorously fight the charges and said he doesn’t foresee a plea deal with Schuette's office.
“This is not the highlight of his life, obviously, but he's doing OK,” Chamberlain said after the arraignment as he walked behind his client.
Lyon walked out of the courtroom with his wife, holding her hand, and declined to talk to reporters.
The manslaughter charges carries a penalty of up to 15 years in prison and a $7,500 fine, while the misconduct charge carries a prison sentence of up to five years and a $10,000 fine. The state health director is specifically being linked to the death of 85-year-old Robert Skidmore of Genesee Township.
Lyon is accused of not notifying the public earlier about a Legionnaires’ disease outbreak in the Flint area in 2014-15 that resulted in 12 deaths and 79 other people being sickened. Some experts have linked the outbreak to the contaminated water after the city switched to Flint River water in April 2014, but the state health department has blamed McLaren Flint Hospital, which 40 of the 91 Legionnaires’ cases, including Skidmore's.
Jerold Lax, attorney of Dr. Eden Wells, said his client “vehemently denies the charges,” which include obstruction of justice and lying to a police officer. The obstruction charge carries a prison term of up to two years.
Wells was released on a $25,000 bond after paying 10 percent of the amount and was given permission to travel out of state to Mississippi. She also was ordered to have no contact with those involved in her case.
Wells is accused of giving false testimony to a special agent and threatening to withhold state aid from the Flint Area Community Health and Environment Partnership if the partnership didn’t stop its probe into the source of the Legionnaires’ Disease outbreak in the Flint area.
“I expect it will be clear that Dr. Wells is a competent, dedicated and respected health professional and that any action she took during this unfortunate situation was taken only for the purpose of protecting legitimate public health concerns,” Lax said.
Snyder kept Lyon and Wells in their jobs after the charges were filed Wednesday, noting that they are innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt and that “Director Lyon and Dr. Wells have been and continue to be instrumental in Flint’s recovery.”
Lax said he thinks it is “entirely appropriate that she continue to be able to carry out her public health job.”
Ruth Carter with the attorney general's office said her office on Monday will provide a list of people to both attorneys to let them know which individuals Lyon and Wells can’t contact during the case.
A Wayne State University law professor said Schuette faces hurdles in his prosecution of Lyon because it will rely heavily on expert testimony and trying to link Lyon’s inaction on a public declaration of a Legionnaires’ disease outbreak to Skidmore’s death on Dec. 13, 2015.
Skidmore’s death certificate shows that he died from “end stage congestive heart failure.” Only diabetes is listed as a contributing cause to the death of Skidmore, according to the certificate.
But the charging document indicates that a McLaren Flint Hospital doctor on June 2, 2015, collected a sample from Skidmore that tested positive for Legionella and that the Genesee County medical examiner will “not refute the medical doctor’s findings that Legionnaires’ Disease was a cause of Robert Skidmore’s death.”
Former Flint Emergency Manager Darnell Earley, former Michigan Department of Environmental Quality Drinking Water Chief Liane Shekter-Smith, state Water Supervisor Stephen Busch and former Flint Water Department Manager Howard Croft already have been charged with other crimes, but also had a charge of involuntary manslaughter added against them.