Attorneys defend costs as Flint probe tab climbs

Leonard N. Fleming, and Michael Gerstein
The Detroit News

Lansing — The cost to defend and prosecute the Flint water investigation continues to climb, but attorneys on both sides say legal representation in one of the state’s largest criminal cases involving public officials is expensive.

The costs are expected to escalate in part because six current and former city and state officials have been charged with involuntary manslaughter related to one of the 12 deaths attributed to a 2014-15 outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in the Flint area. The cost will zoom past the current tab of $23 million even with cost-cutting measures in place, lawyers said.

“I regret the size of the public expense, but this is a case, the way it is being prosecuted, it just demanded countless hours in the defense of it,” said Charles Chamberlain, one of the lead defense attorneys for Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon, who has been charged with involuntary manslaughter and obstruction of justice.

“And it has simply demanded a lot of time in a short period of time, and we have not wavered in our strategy.”

Chamberlain, who is a partner in Willey & Chamberlain based in Grand Rapids that has netted nearly $411,000 to defend Lyon since 2016, said his legal team has cut costs.

“Many hours have been left on the cutting room floor,” he said. “There are tons of hours we haven’t billed for.”

Attorney General Bill Schuette’s special prosecutor, Todd Flood, said he has done everything he can to keep a lid on costs, such as not seeking reimbursement for flights, mileage and meals.

“I’m humbled by this case. This affects me everyday,” Flood said. “Anytime you see these kinds of dollars being expended, the average person is flabbergasted by the dollar amount. Unfortunately this man-made problem has created a mess for which there has to be an expenditure of funds to find justice. And that’s the truth.”

In January 2016, Snyder declared a state of emergency because a change in Flint’s water source in April 2014 resulted in lead leaching from old pipes and created a public health crisis.

On Tuesday, Schuette asked and received a state committee’s approval of $2.6 million more in legislatively approved money to pay for the water crisis probe.

The state's Finance and Claims Committee quickly recommended that the state Administrative Board approve Schuette’s request as Flood’s law firm prosecutes 13 former and current state and Flint officials. The full board will likely approve the additional money at an Oct. 24 board meeting.

Schuette’s office has spent $4.9 million so far that has resulted in two plea deals — one with former state epidemiologist Corrinne Miller and another with Flint Water Quality Supervisor Michael Glasgow in return for their cooperation.

Schuette’s team has charged Lyon, Michigan Chief Medical Officer Eden Wells, two Flint emergency managers and two other officials with involuntary manslaughter in the Legionnaires’ death of a Genesee Township man who was originally declared dead from other conditions.

Jerold Lax, who represents Wells, said the growing expenses are a “perfectly legitimate question.” The prosecution helps add more time and cost, such as when it last week added charges of involuntary manslaughter and misconduct in office against Wells.

Lax, who works for Pear Sperling Eggan & Daniels, has received more than $154,000 in defending the chief medical officer.

“It’s obvious the prosecutor determines whether to add to the list of charges that have been made, which can result in matters becoming longer than they would have otherwise,” he said. “It’s certainly is a legitimate matter of taxpayer concern, and I think it would be extremely appropriate for taxpayers to think about that question.”

“The litigation is extraordinarily complex,” said James White, who represents former Flint director of public works Howard Croft, who has also been charged with involuntary manslaughter. His attorneys at Okemos-based White Law have worked upwards of 40 hours on this case, White said.

“As far as my firm is concerned, we have tried to be frugal as possible,” said White, adding he didn’t know the exact contract amount. “We discounted our usual hourly billing rate when we first got on the case. The city of Flint asked us to do that, and we had no problem doing that, understanding that this was going to be an expensive case that would be borne out by the taxpayers.”

Schuette spokeswoman Andrea Bitely said the $2.6 million is money that was already appropriated by the Legislature, but the Administrative Board also has to sign off.

“This is just the way that the state of Michigan does contract work,” Bitely said. “This is not an extra $2.6 million. This is dollars that the Michigan legislature believed were necessary to continue the investigation and prosecution and determine what happened in Flint.”

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