Nessel briefs Whitmer, lawmakers on Flint water settlement

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News
Attorney General Dana Nessel answers questions from reporters during a press conference Feb. 21 in Lansing.

Mackinac Island — Legislative leaders and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer are talking to Attorney General Dana Nessel about a potential settlement in the civil lawsuits against state officials stemming from the Flint water crisis.

Nessel said Wednesday that she’s talked with the governor and discussed various issues with the legislative majority and minority leaders regarding the ongoing negotiations, which she declined to detail. 

The Whitmer administration and Nessel have indicated that they want to settle the civil litigation stemming from the lead contamination of Flint's drinking water that resulted after the city switched its water source to the Flint River in April 2014. There are 79 Flint-related civil lawsuits.

Whitmer could not comment on pending litigation, but "is committed to getting this resolved," her spokeswoman Tiffany Brown said.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey said legislative leaders are involved in exploring how to finance “that final number,” but aren’t at the actual negotiating table.

“I’m not of the opinion that the damage people are seeking payment for is real, but the perception is that,” the Clarklake Republican told The Detroit News Thursday. “Courts I think are lining up to say that there needs to be a settlement, and sometimes you need to put it behind you.”

Shirkey clarified his initial comment to say some of the damages alleged in Flint were real and others “were people taking advantage of what happened.”

House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, and Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, stopped short of confirming their involvement in Flint settlement meetings with Nessel, but Chatfield voiced support for reaching a settlement with affected residents.

“I think what happened in Flint was a breakdown of government at all levels and we need to do all we can to make it right,” Chatfield said.

Ananich said he’s encouraged by the progress Nessel’s office has made on the criminal cases initiated under Republican former Attorney General Bill Schuette, cases that Ananich said now appear to be “more about a political point” than actual justice.

Timely justice in Flint in both the civil and criminal cases is important, the Senate minority leader said, but not as important as “getting it right.”

“I’m a citizen who was wronged myself so I have anger, I have mistrust, I was lied to both as a citizen but also in my capacity” as a lawmaker, Ananich said. “But I also think that dragging this out for too long can continue the wounds that people need to find a way to heal.”

After taking office in January, Nessel reorganized the handling of the Flint criminal cases, placing Solicitor General Fadwa Hammoud in charge and firing prosecutor Todd Flood.

Nessel took over the civil side of the Flint-related litigation in February. The Whitmer administration and Nessel have indicated that they want to settle the state's 79 Flint-related civil lawsuits.

The negotiations have not been without some obstacles. One of the lead attorneys in the civil cases has asked a judge to remove Nessel’s office from the all civil litigation because of an alleged conflict of interest.

Nessel has denied a potential conflict was created when the same assistant attorneys general now defending former Gov. Rick Snyder in the civil case were also appointed to prosecute a state lawsuit against water engineering firms that had worked in Flint.

The motion for disqualification remains pending in Genesee County circuit court.

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