DEQ supervisor: ‘Politics involved’ in Flint firing

Jonathan Oosting and Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing – Two state employees fired or punished for their roles in the Flint water crisis were “thrown under the bus,” the chief deputy director of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality told a state police investigator in March.

Jim Sygo, in a March 1 voluntary interview with Michigan State Police, defended former Office of Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance chief Liane Shekter Smith and regulator Stephen Busch, who he said had done a “terrific” job for the department.

A task force appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder found that the DEQ failed to require corrosion control chemicals when the city began using Flint River water in April 2014. The harsh water damaged pipes and leached lead that contaminated the drinking water.

“He felt there was politics involved with the Flint water issue,” Lt. Lisa Rish wrote in a report obtained by The Detroit News. “Mr. Sygo said he felt that Ms. Shekter Smith was ‘thrown under the bus’ and Mr. Busch ‘was probably there, too.’ ”

Shekter Smith was fired Feb. 5. Busch was suspended Jan. 22 and criminally charged last month by Attorney General Bill Schuette. Sygo was Shekter Smith’s supervisor and originally hired Busch.

The state police report contains compelled statements from Busch and Mike Prysby — an engineer who also has been charged criminally — and water quality analyst Adam Rosenthal that were redacted.

Schuette and Genesee County Prosecutor David Leyton said this week the state police’s administrative investigation has interfered with their criminal investigation.

“... We believe that this report has the potential to complicate, and in fact have already complicated, our ability to conduct the type of thorough and timely criminal investigation that the Flint water crisis demands,” Schuette and Leyton wrote in a letter Wednesday to Snyder.

U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade’s office also has said the compelled statements “could have a substantially negative effect on our criminal investigation moving forward.”

Busch and Prysby are accused of “willfully and knowingly” misleading federal regulators at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Genesee County Health Department about the treatment of Flint’s river water.

In his interview with state police, Sygo complained that he learned about Shekter Smith’s dismissal through a disciplinary conference that he was never contacted about.

“He felt it didn’t follow civil service process,” Rish wrote about Sygo, a 33-year DEQ veteran.

Richard Benzie, who served as Busch’s direct supervisor in the Office of Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance since December 2014, called Busch a “very capable” employee whose work had not raised concerns.

“There was nothing intentionally done to create a public health hazard,” Lt. Lish wrote, paraphrasing Benzie’s voluntary interview. “He states that Mr. Busch was one of the finest employees he had ever worked with in his 40 years. He put in extra effort, did his homework and was well informed on issues.”

Benzie said he felt Busch was being treated unfairly, and “the public was outraged over the emergency manager taking control away from elected officials.”

State police began investigating the DEQ on Jan. 25, three days after new Director Keith Creagh suspended Shekter Smith and Busch.

Busch was interviewed March 14 by the state police lieutenant at the DEQ’s Lansing headquarters while he was suspended with pay, according to the report. State attorneys redacted 11 pages of Busch’s statements.

Shekter Smith declined to be interviewed after she was fired and former DEQ Director Dan Wyant did not return the state police investigator's message, according to the report.

Creagh requested the state police’s assistance with an internal investigation of employees involved in the Flint water switch, state police spokeswoman Shanon Banner said.

Several longtime DEQ employees defended Busch and Prysby in interviews with the state police investigator.

Amy Lachance, Busch’s counterpart in the water office’s Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo district, said she would have followed the same protocols Busch did in requiring two six-month studies of Flint’s new water source before requiring corrosion control chemicals.

“Ms. Lachance didn’t know all the details related to the Flint water crisis or to Mr. Busch’s actions, but did not feel that what he did would have been any different than what she would have done at the time or what was usually done when deciding if a system had optimal corrosion control,” Rish wrote in her report.

Mark Joseph, an engineer who worked under Busch and alongside Prysby, also vouched for Prysby, a 28-year DEQ employee, “would not intentionally harm anyone,” Rish wrote. “He firmly believed that no employee did anything intentional and that everyone at MDEQ had a respect for public health,.”

Joanne Rennaker, Busch’s secretary, also defended her boss and Prysby, saying they “worked very hard to address the issues in Flint.”

“It was her opinion that everyone was working hard to fix the problems in Flint and did not get the impression that anyone was trying to hide anything,” Rish wrote in the report.

When asked if she would be comfortable with Busch returning to work, Rennaker said she’d be “very comfortable” and that Busch “always followed the rules,” according to the report.

“She didn’t know how it got to the point where (Busch) was suspended because all she saw was him working many hours trying to fix the problem.”