LINKEDIN 44 COMMENTMORE

Flint — A top Gov. Rick Snyder aide is under fire for a text exchange he started with a Flint activist after the man criticized the governor’s handling of the water crisis, telling the resident in a private exchange that Snyder “does not deserve to be villified by those who have no basis to judge him.”

Rich Baird, the governor’s point man in the Flint recovery effort, wrote in the text message to Arthur Woodson that he should “just crawl back into whatever hole of illusion you reside in and hope that lazy reporters will occasionally forget that you ceased to be relevant long ago.”

The text followed Woodson’s comments in a Detroit News Feb. 26 article about the public apathy toward the Flint involuntary manslaughter court hearings involving two state health officials because the legal proceedings weren’t focused on higher officials such as Snyder.

“If you get Richard Baird right now, if he goes on trial, they will starting looking because they know Rich Baird,” unsuccessful mayoral candidate Woodson told The News. “They know that’s Snyder’s right-hand man. So they’d feel like that would be close to getting Snyder.”

The comment prompted Baird to excoriate Woodson for saying he should be on trial and boast about “devoting the past 2 plus years to try to get support and assistance to the people in my hometown who really need it. ... We are surrounded by politicians who cut and run and refuse to accept responsibility for something that happened on their watch even though they didn’t cause it.”

Baird then called Flint a “case study in abandonment,” adding, “I have not abandoned this city. You have no idea what I have done personally and professionally for people I will never meet.”

“But you have not earned the right to disrespect our governor who does not deserve to be villified by those who have no basis to judge him,” Baird wrote, adding that “you can say whatever the hell you want but know that when judgement day comes, I will not be turned away based on the hatred of people who don’t even know me but think they can talk about me. Don’t bother responding Art.”

Many Flint residents have blamed Snyder and his administration for the April 2014 switch to the corrosive Flint River that resulted in lead contamination in the drinking water because officials failed to use corrosion control chemicals. Some residents have said they want Snyder charged with crimes related to the crisis.

Woodson, who has dealt with Baird on water-related issues, said he was taken aback by the text. He explained in a return text to Baird that he respected the Snyder aide and that it was clear he didn’t say Baird should be on trial, but rather using his name as an example.

Baird never responded to his return text, Woodson said.

“So he’s basically saying nobody in the city of Flint can say anything about the governor,” Woodson said.

“Well, we feel that he was the one that allowed this to keep on going on because the emergency manager was under his control. And he could have stopped it. So we do have the right to say: Hey, you poisoned us, you allowed it. Even if you didn’t give the order for them to do it, you still allowed it to go on when you kept on hearing us cry out that this water is no good.”

Baird, Snyder’s controversial “transformation manager” who has been Flint’s recovery director since late January 2016, did not return repeated phone calls for comment.

“This was a personal conversation that unfortunately took on a less than civil tone,” Snyder spokeswoman Anna Heaton said in an email.

When asked if Baird was expressing the governor’s feelings, Heaton said: “Rich was not speaking for the governor, nor did he claim to be. This was a private conversation, not a public forum.”

“Rich is a Flint native and he has remained immensely committed to ensuring residents have all of the resources they need,” she said.

Text generates backlash

U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township, has criticized Snyder’s handling of the crisis and was unhappy with Baird’s comments.

“Flint residents are the victims of the ongoing Flint water crisis and will be recovering from this man-made disaster for many years to come,” Kildee said. “As I have said before, the state bears responsibility for this crisis and must do more to help Flint families.”

For his part, Woodson, who was instrumental in the failed recall election of Mayor Karen Weaver, doesn’t buy Heaton’s explanation that Baird isn’t speaking for the governor.

“He’s the governor’s right-hand man,” he said. “So whatever he’s saying is what the governor is feeling also.”

Flint City Councilman Eric Mays said he wasn’t “surprised” by the text message sent by Baird, with whom he hasn’t seen “eye to eye” regarding the state’s role in Flint. He argued the “state should have done more financially, even now,” since the state government has a projected $889 million rainy day fund into which it can dip and had several hundreds of millions of dollars in surplus before the Legislature targeted them to be spent on other environmental and road repair priorities.

Mays said he didn’t think Baird was accurate about what he’s done for Flint.

“That tone and that type of attitude, I’ve kind of heard and experienced before,” he said. “I think he’d be better off concentrating on the citizens of the city of Flint as it relates to the still-continuing need (for water resources).”

Andrea Bitely, spokeswoman for Attorney General Bill Schuette, who is handling the Flint crisis prosecution, said “it would inappropriate for me to comment because of open litigation.”

Baird has worked behind the scenes in the Snyder administration and become a lightning rod.

Baird’s other controversies

His job was originally funded by the governor’s civic fund for $100,000 a year. After its public revelation in 2013, Snyder transferred the retired PricewaterhouseCoopers executive to the state payroll at a $140,000 salary.

In 2014, Baird paid more than $16,000 in property taxes and interest to settle a problem with his dual Michigan and Illinois residences after Democrats called for his firing. An inadvertent error led to both of Baird’s homes being classified as his principal residences, a Snyder spokesman said, because he split time between his work in state government and the Illinois home where his family lived.

Then-Michigan AFL-CIO President Karla Swift wrote a commentary for The News about his illegal double tax exemption on two homes, prompting Baird to leave her an angry telephone voice message. He threatened in the message that she "better be careful" and "start dealing with facts" about his personal property tax troubles, which turned out to be a Michigan township's clerical error.

He also has advised the governor on hot-button issues, including Detroit’s bankruptcy, the recruitment of Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr from the Jones Day law firm and education issues.

Baird helped get free legal counsel for a secret project that tried to develop a less expensive way to deliver public education through a voucher-like funding system. In 2013, Snyder eventually disbanded the education reform advisory “skunk works” team that was designing a new “value school” that costs $5,000 per child annually to operate.

Woodson said he hopes Baird loses his position over the unsolicited exchange.

“The part that shocked me was when he told me to go crawl back into the hole I crawled out of and that I’m irrelevant,” he said. “... And that the governor doesn’t deserve to be talked about.

“I hope this wakes everybody up and lets them know that the governor does not feel like he’s done anything wrong and that we need to let him know and shout out loud from the rooftops that he deserves to be in jail,” Woodson said.

lfleming@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2620

Twitter:@leonardnfleming

LINKEDIN 44 COMMENTMORE
Read or Share this story: https://detne.ws/2I9xE0C