Staffer says Snyder told of Legionnaires’ on a call

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News

Flint — Lawyers for Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon focused his involuntary manslaughter preliminary exam toward what some of Gov. Rick Snyder’s staff knew about the Flint area Legionnaires’ disease outbreak and away from what their client knew.

Harvey Hollins, Gov. Rick Snyder's urban affairs aide, testifies Wednesday at the preliminary exam for Michigan Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon.

The subject came up during the fifth day of testimony in the Lyon case in which Harvey Hollins, the governor’s urban affairs czar, was on the stand.

Hollins was caught off guard when Lyon’s attorney Larry Willey presented him with emails from Brad Wurfel, a Michigan Department of Environmental Quality spokesman, discussing Legionella in spring 2015. In response to a Willey question, Hollins said Lyon had nothing to do with the city of Flint’s switch to the corrosive Flint River that some experts link to the outbreak of Legionnaires’.

In the March 13, 2015, email, Brad Wurfel asked DEQ water quality director Liane Shekter-Smith and Drinking Water supervisor Stephen Busch to “try to keep formal written powder dry” until they could meet with Department of Community Health officials on a Legionella information request from the Genesee County Health Department. Shekter-Smith and Busch have been charged with crimes related to the Flint water crisis.

Hollins told Willey the governor’s staff in March 2015 wasn’t aware of the Legionnaires’ outbreak.

“No, it’s not fair to say that,” Hollins said. “I received information from a public information officer from DEQ. That tells me nothing. Even if I had the information, I’d still have to get the information from the department director. I was aware that his director was copied on an email that was sent to me.”

Hollins said he became aware that Brad Wurfel’s wife Sara Wurfel, then the governor’s spokeswoman, and Communications Director Jarrod Agen were blind copied on the email after reading media reports about the email. Agen went on to become Snyder’s chief of staff in January 2016 and is now working for Vice President Mike Pence.

Hollins said he did not tell concerned pastors about the Legionella issue in summer 2015 “because there was no conclusive evidence” but that “it was the department’s responsibility to follow up on this stuff.” But he admitted that there appeared to be more than 40 cases of Legionnaires’ at the time.

Michigan Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon, left, talks to co-council Chip Chamberlain, right, before his preliminary hearing Wednesday in Genessee County's 67th District Court.

Lyon is accused of involuntary manslaughter in the death of 85-year-old Robert Skidmore of Genesee Township and obstruction of justice by deliberately failing to warn the public about an outbreak of Legionnaires’. The form of pneumonia killed 12 Flint area residents and sickened another 79 residents in 2014-15.

The state didn’t warn the public about the outbreak until mid-January 2016.

Under questioning, Hollins spoke about his two summer 2015 meetings with Snyder and others state officials where he detailed how the city’s water was causing Flint residents to suffer rashes and mar baptismal tubs with brownish water. He testified that lead had become a major concern to residents amid a backdrop of several pictures presented in court by Special Prosecutor Todd Flood.

Hollins also testified that he told the governor about the Legionnaires’ disease outbreak about three weeks before the Republican leader revealed the problem to the public.

Hollins said he told Snyder about the Legionnaires’ outbreak on a Dec. 24, 2015 conference call. Snyder announced the the deadly form of pneumonia on Jan. 13, 2016 at a hastily arranged press conference in Detroit.

Hollins, who last month in court contradicted Snyder’s congressional testimony that he first learned about it in January 2016, said Lyon was not on the conference call. The 2014-15 outbreak killed 12 Flint-area residents and sickened 79 others.

Hollins said five others were on the conference call including Snyder and senior adviser Richard Baird.

When the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform asked the Republican governor whether he wanted to clarify his testimony, Snyder stood by his comments.

“My testimony was truthful and I stand by it,” Snyder wrote on Oct. 13 to House Oversight Chairman Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., and Ranking Member Elijah Cummings, D-Maryland.

Cummings wants to subpoena Snyder for more records, something the Snyder administration has called playing politics by press release. The administration says it has released all pertinent Flint-related state documents.

Earlier this month, Cummings said he was thankful to Gowdy for agreeing to reopen the Flint investigation — a claim a Gowdy spokeswoman declined to comment on.

Flood played Snyder’s congressional testimony in court. Last week, Lyon’s attorneys asked Genesee County Judge David Goggins to strike video of Snyder’s congressional committee testimony from the court record, calling it “irrelevant” to the case and a political “sideshow.”

Snyder’s congressional testimony has “nothing to do with Mr. Lyon,” his attorneys wrote in a court document. “What the testimony of Governor Snyder was in fact offered for was to make the governor look bad.”

When Flood asked Hollins if anyone from the Health and Human Services asked and showed “any care or concern” about how Legionnaires’ disease manifested itself in Flint, he responded, “No, I didn’t.” Hollins emphasized he didn’t know about the Legionella outbreak that summer.

“It was clear that the residents expressed lead and copper issues in their water,” Hollins said, adding that he always met with the governor once a month and would have met with him in July and August 2015. “I told him about that being an issue being raised as a concern with these groups” of ministers and others.