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OPINION

Thompson: Independent probe needed in Flint

Bankole Thompson
The Detroit News

It is hard to predict what Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette will do next, having staged one news conference after another and making carefully calculated announcements regarding Flint’s water crisis.

First he waited two weeks after the Environmental Protection Agency assisted by the U.S. Justice Department announced a probe into Flint before he came out with plans to investigate if any laws were broken.

After his announcement was met with skepticism because of his perceived ambitions to be the GOP nominee for governor in 2018 and his record of being against environmental regulation, including fighting tough EPA rules for mercury emissions at power plants, Schuette on Monday named a Detroit attorney Todd Flood as special counsel assisted by former Detroit FBI director Andy Arena to investigate Flint.

So what’s next?

Here is the problem with this latest announcement. The special counsel will report to Schuette’s office, the same office that shot down a request last year to investigate Flint when it became clear children were drinking lead-contaminated water.

“Since transitioning to the Flint River, the citizens of Flint have suffered serious health issues as a result of poor water quality. We have seen e-coli bacteria and at present lead and copper changes. The most recent problems are indicative of a lack of proper corrosion treatment. To some it seems that Flint has a water supply of a Third World country while living near one of the greatest water resources in the world,” state Rep. Sheldon Neeley, D-Flint, wrote to Schuette in Sept. 29, 2015.

Neeley then asked the attorney general to “investigate and determine if the city of Flint and/or state of Michigan and its agents have culpability and responsibility for this unfortunate problem. We have reached out to the governor’s office for additional support and intervention. To date, we have had few sufficient responses.”

Schuette’s office waited three months before responding Dec. 22 with a “no.”

Rusty Hills, senior advisor in the Office of the Attorney General, said that because of “multiple reviews by federal and state agencies and the pending and potential federal court actions,” citing a class action lawsuit and other investigations “we do not believe it necessary to conduct an additional investigation.” The letter was copied to Gov. Rick Snyder and Dan Wyant the former head of the DEQ who would resign in the scandal.

The national horror shown by Time magazine’s cover last week of 2-year-old Sincere Smith — suffering from rashes all over his body — under the headline “The Poisoning of An American City,” underscores the urgency of an impartial investigation.

Only an independent commission made up of law enforcement officials, judges, environmental experts and citizens can get to the bottom of what happened, when it happened and who should face the consequences.

The commission should have unfettered and unhindered access in this probe. Arena, the former FBI boss, should be a member as well as Wayne County prosecutor Kym Worthy.

This commission should meet publicly in Flint and its findings should be made public for all to see.

Schuette’s investigation cannot be viewed as credible, independent and devoid of political expediency no matter how many words go into explaining the role of the special counsel.

Though his is an elected office, Schuette is still the state’s chief lawyer serving as the ultimate legal adviser for all state agencies. Upon the governor’s request — as all state Attorneys General do — he can give his legal opinion on issues of importance about the welfare of the state.

In the Flint case, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (that under normal circumstances would seek advice from the Office of the Attorney General) would naturally be a target or witness in the investigation because of the way it handled and outrightly dismissed concerns by health officials, independent experts and local civic leaders in Flint about the water.

It is even plausible that Schuette himself or his office may have to testify before an independent commission and explain what the rational was for declining the earlier request to investigate Flint.

Schuette can’t serve two masters by defending the state in the sure-to-come related lawsuits and having to respond to investigations of his own office about the state’s role.

Though the governor tried in last Tuesday’s State of the State address, the road to addressing Flint’s crisis begins with announcing a commission to hold accountable those responsible for Flint’s environmental woes. Rick Snyder should go to Flint and do a televised address in naming the commission. Let’s start there.

bankole@bankolethompson.com

Bankole Thompson is the host of “Redline with Bankole Thompson,” on WDET-101.9 FM at 11 a.m. Thursdays. His column appears Thursdays.