Suspended state workers invited back after Flint dismissals

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
Michael Prysby, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality District 8 Water Engineer, left, and Stephen Busch, Michigan DEQ District 8 Water Supervisor, appear in court in this April 20, 2016 file photo. Prysby, Busch and three other state bureaucrats can reclaim their state jobs after prosecutors dropped charges against them but retained the ability to refile the charges.

Lansing — State government workers who had faced criminal charges over the Flint water crisis will be asked to return to work after prosecutors in Attorney General Dana Nessel’s office dismissed all pending court cases and rebooted the investigation.

All five employees had been on paid suspensions since they were initially charged by former Attorney General Bill Schuette.

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services was sending letters or emails to Nancy Peeler and Robert Scott giving them the option to return to work as soon as Monday, spokeswoman Lynn Sutfin said. 

“They can choose whether or not to return to work,” she said. “If they choose not to return, it would be treated like a resignation.

Peeler and Scott had been accused of covering up a 2015 internal report on blood lead level data in Flint children. Solicitor General Fadwa Hammoud dropped charges against them and other defendants last week but reserved the right to refile any cases pending further investigation.

Environmental regulators Patrick Cook, Michael Prysby and Stephen Busch could also soon head back to work.

Cook, a community drinking water specialist, was accused of failing to take corrective action and misleading the federal Environmental Protection Agency about corrosion controls, but Hammoud dismissed related charges last week.

Prysby and Busch had remained on paid suspension after reaching misdemeanor plea deals last year and agreeing to testify against defendants in other cases.

“Efforts are underway to coordinate dates for them to return to work given the recent actions,” said Scott Dean, a spokesman for the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy.

In the stunning and unexpected move, Hammoud and Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy last week announced they were restarting the three-year-old investigation into the Flint water contamination crisis begun by Schuette and overseen by his hand-selected Special Prosecutor Todd Flood.

Nessel's office also dropped involuntary manslaughter charges against former Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon, who left the job at the end of 2018, and former Chief Medical Executive Eden Wells, who late last year took a new job with the department as an “advisory physician.”

Both top-ranking health officials had maintained their innocence but had been bound over for trial.

The state is not sending a return invitation to Liane Shekter-Smith, who was fired in February 2016 after leading the environmental department division that was responsible for overseeing Flint’s water source switch.

Shekter was later charged in the Flint probe but reached a deal in January, pleading to a misdemeanor charge and agreeing to testify against other officials in exchange for a reduced sentence.

While Nessel is working on the civil side of a conflict wall within her department, the attorney general last week defended the criminal dismissals. She said the move was warranted by new evidence, drawn-out preliminary examinations, plush plea deals and potentially political timing by her predecessor.

The dismissals do not preclude the Attorney General's office from refiling charges after additional review. While the dismissals may “not bring immediate remedy or relief” to Flint residents, they will allow for a “vigorous pursuit of justice,” Hammoud and Worthy said last week.