Prosecutors slam halted Flint water probe at town hall
Flint — Michigan Solicitor General Fadwa Hammoud and Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy on Friday slammed the Flint water probe conducted under former Attorney General Bill Schuette, saying investigators failed to review and secure millions of documents and presented an "incomplete" case that would have failed in court.
Speaking at a town hall meeting at a UAW hall here, Hammoud and Worthy appeared to win over most of the crowd of about 100 people, who were skeptical of Attorney General Dana Nessel's decision to dismiss criminal charges against eight defendants and start the investigation over. But they also faced angry remarks from residents who said prosecutors should have communicated about their decision sooner.
The two gave detailed explanations of the deficiencies of the investigation led by fired special prosecutor Todd Flood, saying neither prosecutor had seen anything like it in their careers.
Hammoud and Worthy, who took turns speaking in tandem to the crowd, said new search warrants produced at least 20 million new documents along with 600 devices.
They said defense firms hired by the various state agencies were gatekeepers of information presented to Flood's team, giving these lawyers power to determine what investigators received.
Hammoud said Andy Arena, the former director of the Detroit FBI office who worked on the investigation, was complicit in not handling document retrieval properly. Both Flood and Arena declined to comment.
Worthy and Hammoud said when they came into the investigation nearly five months ago, they had "major concerns" about how the probe was handled. Among them was the plea deals with seven defendants that reduced felonies originally filed against them.
Only a "very small percentage" of the millions of documents have been reviewed by the new team, Worthy said after the more than two-hour event, where residents implored the prosecutors to stay longer.
Under those circumstances, "How do you go forward with an investigation? How do you charge anyone?" Worthy asked. The investigation up to the point when Hammoud took over made "no sense to me."
"No one is off the hook," Hammoud said.
Some members from the public even called for Flood, whose law firm made $8 million as part of the investigation, to face charges if what Hammoud and Worthy said about the halted investigation is true.
In a statement Friday night, Schuette defended the closed investigation, saying "we were prepared to go forward with robust prosecutions."
"We took the steps that preserved the evidence in this case," he said.
And our work was not done."
There is a rush to get through the documents because the statute of limitations runs out in nine months. But both Hammoud and Worthy promised swift action.
"We can't tell you where we're going to go, we can't tell you where it's going to lead, we're going to go where the facts and evidence lead us," Worthy said to reporters. "I know that's been repetitive but that's the truth. Anything else would be irresponsible."
"We believe every person in the city of Flint is a victim," Hammoud said. "The easy route would have been to stick with the 1 percent if we cared about speed."
Given what they've found since taking over the investigation, restarting the probe was the right thing to do, both said.
"We believe it's about time that the people are on the front lines of this investigation," Hammoud said at the start of the meeting.
Two weeks ago, Hammoud and Worthy dropped criminal charges against the eight Flint water crisis defendants, including two high-level state health officials and two state-appointed Flint emergency managers.
Hammoud and Worthy have said they need time to restart the investigation and explore new evidence, new people of interest and new criminal culpability linked to the 2014-15 Legionnaires' disease outbreak that killed 12 people in the Flint region and sickened at least 79 others.
Prior to Friday's two-hour town hall, many Flint residents expressed outrage at the dropping of criminal charges, with one activist calling it a "huge insult." Others, including community activist Arthur Woodson, have been reassured that the Attorney General's office can still refile criminal charges and hold Flint water scandal-linked officials accountable.
Woodson, who was the first speaker at the event, said when he attended nearly every preliminary hearing, he thought "things was going right, but what I see here today really pisses me off."
"I really trusted Todd Flood," Woodson said. "And just to think they got less time for poisoning over 98,000 people then somebody stealing a slice of pizza. People are dying. It's hard to trust."
Laura MacIntyre, 51, of Flint said residents shouldn’t be treated like they are “stupid” and that the announcement of the charges being dropped should have been handled better.
“You could have at least have said, we’re going to be doing something, we can’t talk about it,” she told Worthy and Hammoud. “Just any kind of acknowledgment that we exist before going to the press. And then waiting 15 days to have this meeting, it really hurt. It really did a lot to destroy a lot of trust.”
Worthy and Hammoud said later that scheduling conflicts and finding the right venue caused the delay in meeting with residents.
Schuette this week embarked on an extended media tour to defend his Flint investigation ahead of the Friday night town hall, sitting for radio interviews and an appearance on WKAR-TV’s “Off The Record.”
Any suggestion he and his team botched the Flint investigation “is just not true. It’s bogus and false,” Schuette said in the Friday morning television interview.
“The investigation in Flint was done with exceptional professionalism with a thorough, painstaking review of every charge,” Schuette said, noting his team included former Detroit FBI chief Andy Arena and Genesee County Prosecutor David Leyton.
“We filed charges when the facts matched the jury instruction that matched the elements of the crime,” the former attorney general said.
Schuette also challenged estimates that the investigation cost the state more than $30 million, a figure that includes defense legal costs for state officials his office charged.
He said no one has questioned or complained about the costs of his office’s investigations into sexual abuse by pedophile Larry Nassar or members of the Catholic clergy.
“I find it interesting and disappointing that people are complaining about the Flint investigation,” Schuette said. “This is a predominantly African American city where it’s been, you know, (a) marginalized, production and auto-wise shutdown, jobs, shrinking city. And I think it’s outrageous that this bias towards Flint on money is being exhibited.”
Critics have argued the investigation cost significant sums without producing results. Misdemeanor convictions Schuette’s office achieved against lower-level Flint and state employees were the result of plea deals.
“But we were producing results,” Schuette argued, noting that involuntary manslaughter cases against former Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon and Chief Medical Executive Eden Wells had been bound over for trial.
“I make no apologies, no apologies whatsoever, for fighting for the families of Flint,” he said.