Snyder, Schuette Flint tensions flare at confab

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Mackinac Island — Michigan is losing state employees because their peers are facing prosecution by Attorney General Bill Schuette in a nearly two-year probe of the Flint water crisis, Gov. Rick Snyder said Saturday.

Snyder, speaking with reporters at the Mackinac Republican Leadership Conference, defended Michigan Health and Human Services Department Director Nick Lyon and questioned the speed of other cases he said has damaged state employee morale.

Schuette and Special Prosecutor Todd Flood have charged or reached plea deals with 15 former state and Flint officials in connection with the lead contamination of Flint’s drinking water and a Legionnaires’ disease outbreak that killed 12 and sickened another 79 individuals in the Flint area.

“We’ve lost people that have left state government because they don’t want to have that hanging over their head,” Snyder said. “I’ve had people tell me they’ve had retirements or people deciding they didn’t want to take a job because of this environment.”

Snyder’s comments point to continuing tensions with Schuette, a Midland Republican who is running to replace the term-limited governor in 2018.

While the GOP faithful mingled on Mackinac Island, Lyon faced a preliminary examination on involuntary manslaughter and misconduct in office charges levied by Schuette and Flood. He is accused of failing to promptly warn the public of a deadly Legionnaires’ disease outbreak in Flint.

Former health department Corrine Miller testified Friday that she knew the Legionnaires’ outbreak could be embarrassing for Snyder because it could be linked to his emergency manager’s decision to switch from the Detroit water system to the corrosive Flint River.

Schuette has said Lyon and Michigan chief medical officer Eden Wells, who is facing charges of obstruction of justice and lying to a police officer, should resign as they face trial. But Snyder has stood by Lyon and Wells, saying Saturday that he did not suspend his department director because “I’ve only seen him go flat out trying to do good things to help our citizens.”

“He was working so hard on the Flint crisis, but he’s done so many other great things,” Snyder said of Lyon. “I appreciate his work, and let’s let the justice system work.”

Schuette has consistently defended the scope and pace of his probe. He said Saturday that it’s his responsibility as attorney general to enforce the law, “and that’s what the Flint investigation is all about.”

“I don’t want to get into the nitty gritty or the details of any investigation -- we just don’t do that -- but the point is I have to do my job, and that job is to provide justice for the families of Flint,” Schuette said. “And there’s a responsibility so that everybody knows it doesn’t matter who you are or what you do, if you violate the law, you’ll be held accountable.”

Some state officials and political icons have rallied to Lyon’s defense, including former Attorney General Frank Kelley and former Michigan Supreme Court Justice Maura Corrigan, who called him a dedicated public servant “incapable” of intentional harm.

Former GOP Gov. John Engler said Saturday he thinks aggressive charges in the Flint water case may be more motivated by the special prosecutor than Schuette, comparing the situation to “independent” or special prosecutors appointed at the federal level.

“I know that Nick Lyon has a tremendous reputation, and I do think the independent prosecutor’s decision on what they’ve charged here, it certainly raises questions and will have an impact on how eager someone would be to come in and serve if they thought there was risk,” Engler said. “There appears to be a lot to that story that is hard to understand.”

Schuette and Flood launched the Flint probe in early 2016 after Snyder declared a state of emergency. They charged two state Department of Environmental Quality employees in April of that year and then others in July. He has charged a total of 15 state and Flint officials based on what he says are the legal merits and a desire to “seek justice” for city residents.

“It’s been well over a year,” since the first round of state employees were charged, Snyder said, and most of them have not yet had their day in court.

“I think all of us have an expectation our justice system works faster than that,” Snyder said. “…It’s a terrible disruptor in the life (of those charged), and it’s made a major impact on state employee morale.”

State Sen. Mike Kowall, R-White Lake, said Schuette is doing his “due diligence” with the Flint probe despite some pushback from Snyder, who has shouldered considerable blame for the water crisis but worked to resolve it.

“In my mind, I just hope it’s not turning into a political situation,” Kowall said of the investigation. “I like both those guys.”

Snyder and Schuette have feuded over the Flint water crisis investigation and various policy issues during their tenure as two of the state’s top-ranking officials.

The term-limited governor is not yet weighing in on the 2018 race to replace him, but he reiterated Saturday that potential primary candidate Brian Calley is “the best lieutenant governor in the country.”

He declined to discuss details of his relationship with Schuette.

“He’s the attorney general, I’m the governor, and I try to work with everyone with respect,” Snyder said.

Despite public disagreements, Schuette said his relationship with Snyder is “very good.”

Schuette launched his gubernatorial campaign last week with a pledge to lower the state’s personal income tax of 4.25 percent to 3.9 percent. Snyder opposed a similar effort this year in the Michigan Legislature after freezing a planned rollback in 2011, citing looming budget pressures and a road funding deal that will redirect general fund dollars.

“We’re in a position for the next two or three years where it would be tough to see it would be feasible to do that in a fashion that would allow us to keep our fiscal responsibility going in the same way,” Snyder said.

But Schuette argued the state can “absolutely” and immediately afford an income tax rollback originally promised as part of an increase to 4.35 percent under former Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm, Schuette argued.

He downplayed a report from the non-partisan Citizens Research Council highlighting $2 billion to $5 billion in budget diversions Michigan could see by fiscal year 2022.

“Those who say we can’t cut taxes and eliminate the Granholm tax increase, those are the handwringers who really have a very lowered expection of what Michigan’s future can be,” he said. “I’m not running for governor to manage the decline of the state as Michigan becomes smaller and samller and less significant.”

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