Snyder to Congress panel: Flint testimony 'truthful'

Michael Gerstein
The Detroit News

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder again told a congressional oversight panel Thursday that he first learned in January 2016 about Flint’s Legionnaires’ outbreak even after a top aide last week contradicted the Republican governor’s prior testimony.

“My testimony was truthful and I stand by it,” Snyder wrote House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., and Ranking Member Elijah Cummings, D-Maryland.

The defense came after the oversight panel sent a letter earlier in the day urging Snyder to clarify when he first learned of the Flint area Legionnaires’ outbreak that ended up killing 12 people and sickening dozens of others.

Gowdy and Cummings described a “discrepancy in recollection” between his congressional comments last year and testimony in court last week from Snyder’s urban affairs aide Harvey Hollins, who said he informed Snyder of the outbreak in December 2015.

“Mr. Hollins's account of when you became aware of the disease cases is different from your testimony to the Committee,” the letter said. “In order to resolve this discrepancy in recollection, please supply the Committee with any additional relevant information you have concerning the date upon which you first learned of the Legionnaire's disease.

“If necessary, you may also choose to amend or supplement your testimony. In the interest of resolving this matter expeditiously, provide a response no later than October 25, 2017,” the letter said.

Snyder responded within hours, writing he does not “believe there is any reason” to offer the committee more information — although he “will continue to fully cooperate” with it.

The governor noted that his office has already supplied “tens of thousands of pages of documents” in addition to documents from the state’s Attorney General, health and environmental departments.

Wayne State University law professor Peter Henning said it’s unclear what exactly Hollins told Snyder last year because the urban affairs aide did not provide many details in court.

“We don’t know what the governor was told and the degree of detail that the governor received,” said Henning, a former federal prosecutor..

Perjury cases are incredibly difficult to prove because a court has to determine that defendants knew they lied under oath, he said, adding that there can be ambiguity about the truth.

“It’s degrees of truth or falsity and the specificity of the statement and the proof that the defendant knew that it was false,” Henning said. “It’s a very hard thing to prove -- what a defendant knew.”

In 2014-15, a Genesee County outbreak of the deadly form of pneumonia ended up killing 12 and sickening 79 residents. Snyder informed the public about the respiratory disease outbreak at a hastily arranged Jan. 13, 2016, press conference in Detroit.

“In terms of Legionnaires’, I didn’t learn of that until 2016,” Snyder told the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform on March 18, 2016. “… That was clearly a case where the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services should have done more to escalate the issue, to get it visible to the public and to me.”

When special prosecutor Todd Flood asked if Hollins was telling the truth about informing Snyder of the issue in December 2015, Hollins said last Friday: “I took an oath.”

A Snyder spokesman would not say Tuesday whether Hollins was mistaken.

Hollins' comments came during the preliminary examination for Michigan Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon, who is accused of involuntary manslaughter in the death of 85-year-old Robert Skidmore of Genesee Township and obstruction of justice by deliberately failing to warn the public about an outbreak of Legionnaires’.

The letter from Gowdy and Cummings outlines the criteria for perjury, quoting the law that “a witness commits perjury if he or she, ‘having taken an oath …, willfully and contrary to such oath states or subscribes any material matter which he does not believe to be true.’”

It would become a crime if Snyder “knowingly and willfully” made a statement “knowing the same to contain any materially false, fictitious, or fraudulent statement,” the letter said, quoting the statute.

U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township, indicated in a Thursday statement he has spoken with Gowdy and Cummings about how “misleading Congress is a very serious offense” and said “Flint families deserve to know the truth about when the governor first learned of the Legionnaires’ outbreak.”

Last Friday, Cummings issued a statement saying he was concerned the governor "may have misled the Oversight Committee and the people of Flint.” But Snyder spokeswoman Anna Heaton said Wednesday the administration wouldn't be "responding to political press releases."

Former House Oversight Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, ended the committee’s inquiry late last year. Chaffetz retired earlier this year and joined Fox News as a contributor.

The congressional testimony falls outside of Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette’s Flint investigation.

“I cannot comment on that issue or their hearings, period,” Flood told The Detroit News on Thursday. “I have to focus on my case, not that issue.”

Staff Writers Melissa Nann Burke and Leonard N. Fleming contributed