Lawmakers want to extend window to charge Flint officials with misconduct
Lansing — Two Flint lawmakers want to add more time to the clock that Attorney General Dana Nessel’s office is working against as it investigates and reviews potential charges in the Flint water crisis.
The bills, introduced by Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich and Democratic Rep. John Cherry, would increase the window during which prosecutors can charge public officials for misconduct from six years to 10 years.
They are being introduced as Flint approaches the sixth anniversary of switching its water source from a Detroit area water system to the Flint River, a decision that effectively triggered the city’s infamous lead crisis. It is less than eight months away.
In June, Michigan Solicitor General Fadwa Hammoud dismissed criminal charges against eight defendants and vowed to start the investigation over, alleging that investigators under former Attorney General Bill Schuette failed to review and secure millions of documents in the case.
Of the eight defendants whose charges were dismissed, five faced initial charges of misconduct in office that could run up against a six-year statute of limitations in April 2020. They included former Michigan Health and Humans Services Director Nick Lyon, former Flint Emergency Manager Darnell Earley and Patrick Cook, a community drinking water specialist in the state Department of Environmental Quality.
The charges were filed in connection to the lead contamination of the city's drinking water as well as a related 2014-15 outbreak of Legionnaires' disease that killed at least 12 individuals and sickened dozens more.
Hammoud and Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy have taken lead on the criminal cases while Nessel manages the Flint civil lawsuits.
Noting the conflict wall separating her from the criminal cases, Nessel declined to say Thursday whether the pending expiration of the statute of limitations was a concern for Hammoud's review. But she said she appreciated the lawmakers’ efforts.
“I would very much like to take a look at those laws to see if there are any constitutional issues with them,” Nessel said. “Sometimes it's hard when you extend the statute of limitations and you’re making something retroactive, which is what they would seem to do.”
The bill lengthens the time period in which prosecutors can pursue legal action against any local, state or public official in Flint whose potential charges remain within the statute of limitations, Cherry said. The bill would not apply retroactively to charges in which the statute of limitations had already expired.
“There is some urgency in getting passed,” Cherry said, noting that the six-year anniversary of the water switch is in April.
Ananich said he thinks the state needs to give the attorney’s general’s office and the Flint prosecution team “the time they need — and of course the resources they need — to make sure that they can get justice for families.”
The Flint Democratic senator acknowledged some residents could be frustrated by the extended statute of limitations but said he thinks other locals would rather see eventual justice than “having an arbitrary clock run out and they don’t get it at all.”
Ananich said he’ll work with Republican leaders to try to build consensus around what he called important legislation, noting the state has spent significant amounts of taxpayer dollars investigating misconduct by public officials. The cost of the investigation and defense attorney expenses is more than $30.6 million.
“This is not a partisan issue,” Ananich said. “This is not a witch hunt. This is not about specifically anyone in particular. It’s just let’s make sure they have the time to do the investigation.”
The legislation faces an uncertain future in the Republican-controlled House and Senate.
"The majority leader has not reviewed the details of the proposed legislation," said Amber McCann, spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake.
The six-year statute of limitations for criminal misconduct charges was brought up as a concern at the town hall Hammoud and Worthy held in June to discuss the dismissal of charges, Cherry said.
“For folks whose trust in government has already been extremely frayed, they are very concerned that any people who potentially engaged in criminal behavior are going to get off," Cherry said. "It would be very distressing if it was because the original investigation was not handled appropriately.”