Former Gov. Rick Snyder pleads 5th in Flint water civil lawsuit trial

Carol Thompson
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — Former Gov. Rick Snyder on Thursday again declined to testify in a federal civil lawsuit trial in which four plaintiffs who were younger than 6 during the Flint water crisis are suing engineering firms who contracted with the city at that time. 

Snyder appeared before U.S. District Judge Judith Levy on Thursday in an Ann Arbor courthouse. He invoked his 5th Amendment constitutional right not to answer questions at risk of incriminating oneself. 

"Based on advice of counsel I would exercise my Fifth Amendment rights," Snyder said from the witness stand. He left the courtroom with his attorneys after Levy dismissed him. 

Rick Snyder

The trial is to determine if engineering contractors Veolia North America and Lockwood, Andrews & Newman, known as LAN, bear responsibility for lead-contaminated water in Flint. The engineering firms have made it clear in the opening arguments of the trial they plan to pin the blame on state and Flint government officials motivated by "arrogance," "callousness" and "bureaucratic contempt" toward Flint. 

Snyder, former top aide Rick Baird and three other defendants all gave depositions in mid-2020 in which they didn't invoke their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and before unsealed indictments against them were revealed in January 2021. Levy compelled their appearance in court at the trial.

A portion of the video of Snyder's 2020 deposition was shown Thursday to jurors. In it, Snyder said the engineering firms did not raise to his office their concerns about the lack of corrosion controls or other treatment methods for Flint River water. River warning is more acidic than lake water and needs to be treated with chemicals so it won't leach lead from pipes, according to experts. 

Had he been warned, Snyder said he would have been concerned about plans to switch the city's water source from the Detroit Water and Sewer Department's tapping of Lake Huron to the Flint River. 

"I believe I would (have taken) appropriate action and other actions than I took," he said.

In deposition video shown on Wednesday, Snyder said "I wish this never would have happened" about the lead in Flint's water. More than half of the city's residents are getting payouts in an historic $626 million civil litigation settlement with the state of Michigan and city of Flint.

Levy had previously ordered Snyder to testify in the civil trial, but Snyder and other witnesses appealed her decision to the 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.

"Technically, they are in contempt of court," Levy said Thursday about Snyder and three other witnesses who have asserted their 5th Amendment rights. Levy isn't holding the witnesses in contempt because the issue is before the Court of Appeals, she said. 

Snyder faces two misdemeanor charges of neglect of duty related to the Flint water crisis, when the city's drinking water contained elevated levels of lead after the city switched to river water that wasn't properly treated. 

But on Tuesday, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the one-judge grand jury that Attorney General Dana Nessel’s office appointed to investigate and indict state officials, including Snyder, for alleged Flint water crimes, acted outside of state authority. The justices said the one-judge grand jury could investigate but not indict.

Snyder and his attorney say the Supreme Court ruling should mean charges against him are dropped. Lawyers for other Flint defendants are pursuing the same remedy.

"Despite the Michigan Supreme Court’s decision on Tuesday, Solicitor General (Fadwa) Hammoud has announced that she intends to continue pursuing baseless charges against Gov. Snyder, leaving him no choice but to assert his rights under the Constitution," Snyder's legal team said in a Thursday statement Thursday. "Hammoud apparently intends to continue wasting millions of taxpayer dollars that could be put to better use on programs that actually help the people of Flint."

The Associated Press contributed.