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Ex-state water regulator takes Fifth on Flint probe

Chad Livengood, and Jim Lynch

Detroit — The former state drinking water regulator fired for her role in Flint’s disastrous water switch asserted through counsel her Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination during a court hearing Thursday in Detroit.

Liane Shekter Smith, former chief of Michigan’s Office of Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance, appeared before Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Timothy Kenny to exercise the Fifth Amendment through her attorney, Brian Morley, in response to receiving an investigative subpoena the Michigan Attorney General’s Office.

Liane Shekter Smith, former chief of Michigan’s Office of Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance, appears before Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Timothy Kenny. Shekter Smith asserted through counsel her Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination in the Flint water crisis criminal investigation.

Attorney General Bill Schuette’s office issued an investigative subpoena to Shekter Smith and she invoked her Fifth Amendment right to not speak with investigators, Schuette spokesman John Sellek said.

Prior to the hearing, Morley confirmed Shekter Smith would take the Fifth “not as a suggestion of any guilt.” Afterward, he said conversations between state inspectors and his client were cordial and would continue.

“She was served with an investigative subpoena, which basically ... directs that she provide testimony ...,” Morley said after the brief hearing. “No other information was provided. In light of the ongoing investigation and in light of Ms. Shekter Smith’s prior position with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, and not knowing anything else, she’s asserted her right to not incriminate herself...

“In no way, shape or form does that suggest that I, or at Ms. Shekter Smith’s direction, am not working with the Attorney General’s Office in this. We’re obviously not working together ... but this isn’t ... acrimonious. ... In short, Ms. Shekter Smith did nothing wrong.”

Asked if the discussions had touched on a possible plea deal, Morley demurred, saying such talks had not reached any substantive level yet.

“I can tell you that any talks we’ve had have been really, I don’t want to say superficial, but they haven’t been very meaty ...,” Morley said. “It’s: ‘Do you think she’d be interested in talking to us?’ And ‘Yes, I think she’d be very interested in talking to you.’ And then the lawyer in me says ‘subject to figuring out what they’re going to talk about.’”

Shekter Smith left the courthouse in downtown Detroit immediately following the hearing without making any comment.

The DEQ fired Shekter Smith in February after an internal review concluded her office was responsible for allowing Flint’s water to go untreated without chemicals that can control toxic lead from leaching from pipes for nearly 18 months. The Flint River water turned out to be more corrosive than the treated Lake Huron water that the city had used from the Detroit water system.

Shekter Smith previously declined to be interviewed for a Michigan State Police internal affairs investigation that Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration requested after the governor declared a state of emergency in Flint on Jan. 5. She is the only state employee who has been directly fired over Flint’s lead-contaminated water crisis.

On Thursday, attorneys with the Attorney General’s Office expressed no concern over Shekter Smith’s decision to plead the Fifth.

“Ms. Shekter Smith, as the direct supervisor of a person that has already been charged, at this time, we have no objection to her asserting her right,” Special Attorney General Tom Dawson said.

Stephen Busch, a supervisor who worked under Shekter Smith, and drinking water engineer Michael Prysby have been suspended without pay after Schuette charged them criminally for their roles in Flint’s use of the Flint River for drinking water.

The Detroit News first reported May 26 that DEQ Deputy Jim Sygo told a state police investigator in March that he believed Shekter Smith and Busch were “thrown under the bus.”

Sygo also raised concerns that Shekter Smith’s termination “didn’t follow civil service rules,” according to an administrative investigation report the state police conducted for the DEQ.

Last month, Schuette demanded Snyder halt any further internal investigations of the role state agencies played in Flint’s water crisis until he concludes his criminal probe.

Snyder agreed to suspend internal investigations, but the attorney general’s cease-and-desist letter has created friction between the two Republican statewide officeholders.

clivengood@detroitnews.com

(517) 371-3661

Twitter: @ChadLivengood