Snyder backers say looming prosecution will be 'slippery slope'

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — Supporters of former Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, who led the state for eight years, say the Republican's looming criminal prosecution over the Flint water crisis will set a new precedent for the legal burdens carried by top officeholders.

For critics of the former governor, that means justice flows no matter how powerful a person might be. But his backers such as Jim Haveman, the state's former health director, question if future governors will face legal fallout for decisions they had to make.

"If Gov. Snyder can be prosecuted, any public official can be prosecuted," said Haveman, a longtime state official who served as the health director for two years during Snyder's administration as well as a mental health department director and health department director under Gov. John Engler.

Then-Gov. Rick Snyder testifies before a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing Thursday, March 17, 2016, on the circumstances surrounding lead found in tap water in Flint.

Snyder, aide Rich Baird and Nick Lyon, who became health director after Haveman departed, have been informed they will face criminal charges resulting from Flint's water crisis. The changing of the city's water source by Snyder-appointed state emergency managers is blamed for the lead contamination of the drinking water and 2014-15 outbreaks of Legionnaires' disease in the region that hit more than 90 individuals, killing at least 12.

They are among up to 10 individuals who are set to be formally indicted after Nessel's office launched a new investigation into the water scandal in 2019 after the Democrat took office. Nessel has scheduled a press conference for 11:30 a.m. Thursday to announce the "findings" of the probe.

A grand jury in Genesee County has been examining evidence for months with those who've been called before it not authorized to speak about their experiences, according to another source. The Flint water crisis contaminated the city's drinking water with lead and was blamed for a deadly outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in 2014-15 while Snyder was governor.

Former Flint Mayor Karen Weaver told The Detroit News Tuesday that it was "about time" that Snyder faced charges.

"All evidence pointed to him that he knew, that he knew what was going on," she said. "It was a cover-up for 18 long months that something was going on with Flint and the water."

Snyder’s urban aide, Harvey Hollins, told a court in October 2017 that he informed the governor about the Legionnaires’ disease outbreak in December 2015, contradicting Snyder’s past testimony to Congress that he first learned of it in January 2016.

In a letter to a congressional panel in 2017, Snyder maintained that he first learned of the outbreak in January 2016.

Jim Haveman

"My testimony was truthful and I stand by it," the then-governor wrote.

Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, a Democrat who represents Flint, said Wednesday he wouldn't want to prejudge whether someone should be charged. But Ananich said he wants justice for the city's families. He added that there shouldn't be two justice systems: one for those who are powerful and one for those who aren't.

"No person, no politician should be above the law in this," the senator said.

Ananich served on the Joint Select Committee on the Flint Water Public Health Emergency with Sen. Jim Stamas, R-Midland. In 2016, the panel took 18 hours of testimony from over 60 witnesses as it studied what happened in Flint.

Stamas, who chaired the committee, said Wednesday he was "very disappointed" with the news that charges were planned against the former governor.

What happened in Flint was "horrific," but Snyder and Lyon were not personally liable, Stamas contended.

Snyder would not be the first former Michigan governor to face charges. John Swainson, who was a Michigan Supreme Court justice and a former governor, was accused of accepting a bribe in 1975. He was eventually found to be innocent, according to the Michigan Supreme Court Historical Society.

Lyon previously faced two counts of involuntary manslaughter and one count of misconduct in office connected to the Legionnaires' disease outbreak that killed 12 people. Those charges were brought by Special Prosecutor Todd Flood, who worked under then-Attorney General Bill Schuette, a Republican.

Lyon "had the ability" to know how many Legionnaires' disease deaths there were in the Flint area and had the "power" as the state's health chief to protect lives and "enforce laws" to that end, District Judge David Goggins ruled in August 2018 in deciding Lyon would stand trial.

The charges were later dropped after Nessel took office in 2019. The department needed time “to conduct a full and complete investigation," it said.

Haveman has defended Lyon throughout a nearly four-year legal battle. He contended Wednesday that the expected charges against Snyder, Lyon and Baird would have a "chilling effect" on other public officials. Haveman labeled the former governor an "honorable person."

“When you start criminalizing the discretionary decision-making of epidemiologists and public health officials, we are on a slippery slope," Haveman said. .

Bill Ballenger, a longtime Michigan political observer and former Republican state legislator, said Nessel better have "some pretty compelling new evidence" to charge Snyder.

"The idea that this is a slam dunk conviction is grossly exaggerated," said Ballenger, who grew up in Flint. "This thing will be ugly. And it may do a lot of damage to a lot of people’s reputations."

Brian Lennon, an attorney who represents Snyder, said Tuesday it's "outrageous to think any criminal charges would be filed against" the former two-term Republican governor.

"Coming from an administration that claims to be above partisan politics, it is deeply disappointing to see pure political motivation driving charging decisions," Lennon added.

Staff Writer Leonard Fleming contributed.