Public apathy greets initial Flint prosecutions
Flint – Michigan Health and Human Services chief Nick Lyon is the highest-profile state official facing criminal charges in the Flint water investigation. But resident Linda Moore says she has never heard of him and couldn’t pick him out of a lineup.
Like many Flint residents, Moore admits she is not paying keen attention to the preliminary court hearings a few miles from her home. She doesn’t know most of the officials who have been charged with crimes and misdemeanors related to Flint’s lead-contaminated water and a 2014-15 Legionnaires’ disease outbreak that killed 12 people in the region.
Lyon is among six former and current state and Flint officials charged with involuntary manslaughter, which could result in up to 15 years in prison upon conviction. He is back in court on Monday.
Moore, a retired General Motors worker who was exposed to elevated amounts of lead in her water, says she is optimistic that some of the 11 defendants will be punished for the most notorious contaminated water crisis in the nation. Four others have reached plea deals that will result in no imprisonment. But she remains skeptical of the government in general.
“I bet you none of them do no jail time,” said Moore, 70. “They are just trying to make us feel good about (the prosecutions) because they really used us. And now they say the water is safe. But I will never drink no more water from the faucet.”
State water testing has shown that lead levels have fallen below federal standards, but officials still urge residents to drink only bottled water or water from faucets equipped with approved filters.
COMPLETE COVERAGE:The Flint Water Crisis
The preliminary hearings for Lyon, state Chief Medical Executive Eden Wells and four former and suspended Department of Environmental Quality officials have failed to capture more than scant interest from Flint residents still distrustful they will see justice. During five months of testimony, lawyers, journalists and the family and friends of those charged are the only ones filling courtroom benches.
Art Woodson, 50, a longtime Flint resident who has been a de facto representative at the preliminary hearings that began last fall for Lyon and Wells, said people in Flint are looking mostly for the “big-name” officials responsible for the crisis. It all ends, he said, with Gov. Rick Snyder and anyone closely associated with the governor.
“Nick Lyon wasn’t seen much. He’s not a well-known player as far as a name,” Woodson said. “If you get (Snyder’s Flint adviser) Richard Baird right now, if he goes on trial, they will starting looking because they know Rich Baird. They know that’s Snyder’s right-hand man. So they’d feel like that would be close to getting Snyder.”
At a June 2017 press conference announcing new charges in the Flint probe, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette said he is continuing not to rule out possible charges against Snyder. When asked why Snyder has not been charged, Schuette said no “crime has been established.”
Schuette has sparred with Snyder over the Flint investigation, such as calling for the resignations of Lyon and Wells after Snyder kept them on the job and called them “instrumental in Flint’s recovery.”
Lack of trials blamed
Fifteen people have been charged with crimes and misdemeanors in the Flint water crisis investigation, and four defendants worked out plea deals in exchange for testifying. The first charges were filed in April 2016, and the first preliminary exam began in September 2017.
Preliminary hearings for Lyon and Wells so far have taken four to five months.
The next big preliminary hearing in March will involve Darnell Earley, the state-appointed emergency manager whom many residents say they despise because he was in charge of the city of nearly 100,000 residents when the water was switched to the Flint River in April 2014. A governor’s task force blamed the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s failure to insist on the use of corrosion-control chemicals in the river water for the resulting lead contamination.
The emergency manager who followed him, Gerald Ambrose, is going straight to trial.
What’s missing for Flint residents is that none of the cases has been sent to trial except for Ambrose, said Woodson, who ran unsuccessfully for mayor in last fall’s special election.
“They will feel like it’s a waste of time because it may not be bonded over,” he said. “They feel like it’s a dog and pony show. Look at it, you don’t see anybody in there. They feel like nothing’s going to happen.”
Noah Hall, the special assistant attorney general who is the lead on Schuette’s civil lawsuits, said he does not “find any fault with the residents for not following the day to day of these legal proceedings,” which don’t have the cache of an actual trial.
“These residents have gone through and lived with unsafe water and the uncertainty of knowing if their water is safe,” said Hall, who is also an environmental and water law professor at Wayne State University in Detroit. “The residents are so understandably demoralized by how government has failed them that they should be skeptical that something is going to come from the legal process.”
There’s no certainty in these cases, Hall said, or any guarantee the people’s wish to hold the governor accountable comes to fruition.
“It’s often very hard to hold the most powerful people accountable for the results of the decisions they make,” he said.
‘People don’t have faith’
Many residents lack faith in the justice system and the fact that the governor hasn’t been charged has led to apathy about the hearings, said evangelist Lisia Williams.
“Folks are like, these are just the fall people, they’re really not going after the guy who did it. These people are going to get away with a slap on the wrist,” said Williams, who serves at Great Solid Rock Church of God in Christ in Flint. “The faith is not there. It’s really like, let me see the outcome almost.”
Williams, 43, likened the situation to police officers across the country who have shot unarmed black men and are not prosecuted.
“You get slapped in the face,” she said. “Will the court system handle it and will these people really be prosecuted? People don’t have faith in that.”
Flint Mayor Karen Weaver said the public “should be watching” but residents will say “I still have to be focused on my day-to-day living” that is arduous for many. But residents, she said, want the buck to stop with Snyder.
“That might be part of people’s disinterest is that they are going for everybody else,” Weaver said. “Not only the governor, but they’ve talked about (former Flint mayor) Dayne Walling. ... We had a mayor that held up the water, said it was fine and drank it. We had a mayor and an emergency manager that knew about the Legionnaires’.”
Weaver said she and others have been vehement about everybody involved in the water crisis being held accountable, “but we were going to leave that to the legal people to work that out.”
“I think we need to be watching, I think the people should be watching because we still want to hold them accountable,” the mayor said. “When we take our eyes away, we don’t know what will happen.
“Those of us that are here at City Hall, we’re really watching to see what’s going to happen because we did work with these people.”
Dana Chaney, a retired GM worker, said the hearings aren’t on the radar of Flint’s residents for myriad reasons, primarily the lack of trust in their government.
“ Here’s the thing: You are dealing with a situation where I think people are skeptical,” said Chaney, 58. “And they are apprehensive. Their trust ... it’s going to take while. Some people are tuning it out, and some are on top of it.”
Chaney said he’s glad Schuette is following through on prosecutions, but he isn’t holding his breath for justice.
“As far as those guys getting prosecuted, somebody at the bottom in government may take a fall,” he said, “but it just seems like there were too many people who had knowledge of this that may not be getting dealt with.”
Moore, like others, said the governor “should be the first one that does some time,” but she’s not holding her breath.
“I hope some of them do some time, if not all of them because they deserve it,” she said.