Snyder, Schuette clash on court order amid Flint probe

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration intends to challenge a circuit court judge’s order prohibiting state health workers from interacting with the Genesee County Health Department and a Flint hospital amid new cases of the deadly Legionnaires’ disease.

Snyder on Tuesday directed the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services to legally challenge Genesee County Judge Geoffrey Neithercut’s order that the governor’s office claimed barred any interaction between the state and officials at the county health agency and McLaren Hospital related to Flint’s water crisis.

Snyder spokesman Ari Adler said a Genesee County judge issued what he described as a “confidential order” on Aug. 17 that is “prohibiting the department from fully exercising their responsibilities.”

Adler said the judge’s order remains sealed from the public but has constrained the state health department’s ability to respond to a new spate of cases of Legionnaires’ disease in the Flint area, which had a spike of 91 cases in 2014 and 2015 that resulted in 12 deaths.

“It’s very difficult for them do their job adequately if they’re told they cannot work with the county health department and the hospital where these cases are apparently occurring,” Adler said.

Attorney General Bill Schuette’s team investigating the Flint water crisis sought the restraining order “to protect the health data related to lead poisoning and Legionella deaths in Flint,” Schuette spokeswoman Andrea Bitely said late Tuesday.

“The suggestion that MDHHS cannot do its job is simply untrue,” Bitely said in a statement responding to the governor office’s news release. “However, to alleviate any misperceptions, steps are being taken to file an amended protective order.”

Adler said the order was marked “confidential” and could not be made public.

But a copy of the order obtained by The Detroit News says McLaren Hospital was ordered “to contact Genesee County Health Department instead of MDHHS” or the Department of Environmental Quality “for any assistance … involving any future issue relating to the City of Flint Water Crisis.”

Neithercut ordered the Genesee County Health Department to contact the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “directly for assistance involving” water testing, legionella bacteria and lead “during the pendency” of Schuette’s investigation.

The order seeks to preserve evidence related to the Flint-area’s Legionnaires’ outbreak, including test results and patient information. It comes on the heels of Schuette charging three DHHS employees last month for allegedly concealing the danger lead posed to Flint’s water system.

"The Genesee County court is protecting the integrity of evidence and the rights of victims by having outside agencies analyze health data, excluding the DHHS, where multiple employees currently face criminal charges related to the Flint water crisis," Bitely said in a second statement issued late Tuesday night. "DHHS will be provided all this info after the outside agencies analyze the health data."

Snyder has directed Department of Health and Human Services to work with state attorneys to challenge the judge’s order in the Michigan Court of Appeals. The health department is represented by the Attorney General’s Office separate from Schuette’s probe of state agencies at the center of Flint’s lead-tainted water crisis.

“The people of Michigan deserve transparency in their government and their healthcare system,” Snyder said Tuesday in a statement. “Court orders that run counter to the public health code cannot be allowed to go unchallenged when people's lives are at risk.”

Genesee County Prosecutor David Leyton was involved in seeking the protective order along with Royal Oak attorney Todd Flood, who is Schuette’s lead prosecutor in the Flint probe.

Leyton, who could not be reached late Tuesday for comment, has been working with Schuette on a wide-ranging investigation of the Flint water crisis.

Schuette and his lead prosecutor, Todd Flood, have said the investigation is looking into the Legionnaires’ outbreak that occurred during the same time period Flint got its drinking water from the Flint River. The water wasn’t treated with anti-corrosion chemicals and ended up leaching lead from the city’s pipes into the water supply.

Flood said last week he’s weighing a “very serious charge” related to the Legionnaires’ outbreak.

“These actions are all indicative of our aggressive investigation into finding justice for the victims of Flint, and we will proceed full speed ahead with our efforts,” Bitely said Tuesday.

Snyder has directed Department of Health and Human Services to work with the Attorney General’s Office, which represents the department, and challenge the judge’s order in the Michigan Court of Appeals.

“This needs to be sorted out in the courts, but I’m concerned about the time that can take,” Snyder said. “When it comes to alerting people to a potential public health threat, we cannot afford to wait.”

The Aug. 17 order was issued two days after state and county health officials confirmed to The Detroit News that there have been four cases of Legionnaires’ disease this summer.

In the past week, there have been two more confirmed cases of Legionnaires’ disease in Genesee County, bringing the total to six this year, said Jennifer Eisner, spokeswoman for the state Department of Health and Human Services.

Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon notified Snyder’s office on Monday about the sixth case of Legionnaires’ disease as part of a new protocol after the 2014-15 outbreak was not publicly reported by state or county health officials while it was occurring.

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Twitter: @ChadLivengood