Prosecution of Michigan health officials fueled by fear

Since Attorney General Bill Schuette announced involuntary manslaughter charges against Nick Lyon and obstruction of justice and lying to a law enforcement officer charges against Eden Wells, I have struggled to reconcile my knowledge of and experience with these individuals to the actions that they are alleged to have committed.  

I cannot.

As the Director of the Michigan Department of Community Health, now the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, I hired Nick Lyon. He worked diligently as one of my deputies and a member of my executive team for over seven years.  

We worked together daily during that time, giving me the opportunity to develop a sound measure of this man. Nick has spent his entire career in state government, dedicated to serving the people of this state. He is a dedicated public servant who demonstrated integrity, honesty and sound judgment throughout our years together. I know that he would never knowingly or with malice act or withhold action to harm the residents of Flint or any other community in Michigan.

Janet Olszewski was director of the Michigan Department of Community Health from 2003-2010. She is a senior fellow at the Michigan Health Endowment Fund.

Dr. Eden Wells served as a medical epidemiologist and a medical consultant to the Department of Community Health during my years as Director. Her responsibilities to prepare for and respond to public health incidents and crises brought us together frequently, particularly during the H1N1 (Swine Flu) epidemic.

She is a very competent and knowledgeable public health physician who, like Nick, demonstrated honesty, integrity and dedication to the citizens of Michigan. Eden came to the Department because she is passionate about public health and felt that this was where she could do the most good. As a physician, Eden lives by the medical profession’s credo of “first do no harm” and would never knowingly act against this fundamental rule.

The Flint Water Crisis should never have happened, but it did. Every day the people of Flint still struggle with its effects. We must all do everything we can to make sure that the water is safe and that the families and children get the support and care that they need. We must also work very hard to assure that any mistakes made in that situation never happen again.

Protecting the public’s health is a central tenet of the Michigan Constitution. Doing so requires an environment that supports complex coordination of multiple state local and federal partners, access to an analysis of critical data and constant communication. The tenor of this investigation and the charges filed creates an environment of fear and scapegoating that takes us in the opposite direction, a direction in which we all lose.

Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan.

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Comments

John Saari
Sun, 11/19/2017 - 7:27am

That’s what was missed and is so important — Cooperation. The Brain Trust that has been assembled knows how to do the right thing, but they often don’t even talk to each other. They are on power trips and are crying excessive cost. We the People must get our leaders to fight for our principals.

John Saari
Sun, 11/19/2017 - 7:33am

Negligence should rarely be considered a crime. Government Immunity was started for a reason. Convicted Criminals should be punished to the fullest.

Richard Cole
Sun, 11/19/2017 - 1:06pm

Correct me if I am wrong, Janet, but didn't you have an assistant attorney general assigned to the department when you headed it? And didn't Schuette assign an assistant AG to the health department when Nick Lyon was appointed by Snyder to run it? And, if this is true, and negligence is the issue that Schuette is making, shouldn't he be looking in the mirror and asking himself "Where was I (and where was my assistant AG) when the decisions leading up to the tragedy in Flint were being made?"

Janet Olszewski
Mon, 11/20/2017 - 8:40am

You are correct. There have always been several assistant AGs assigned to the Department and that is still the practice. In fact there is a whole Division assigned to the Department given its mandate is so broad

Anonymous
Sun, 11/19/2017 - 4:14pm

Attorney General's office signed off on the Flint switch over, and on the saving of money by not adding necessary chemicals to the water treatment. The governor also signed off on these issues. It does seem as if this is a scapegoat effort to deflect responsibilities from the leadership of the state and should not be allowed to stand. Flint has turned Michigan into a global laughing stock and those leaders at the top should be held accountable and take responsibility.

Joe Blow
Wed, 11/22/2017 - 3:49pm

Yup

Anonymous
Sun, 11/19/2017 - 5:23pm

It was reported the Attorney General and the governor both signed off on switching water supplies as well as not using the recommended chemicals to treat the water. I think the leadership of the state should not be looking for scapegoats and take responsibility for their actions and not try and pass it off as someone else's responsibility. The buck stops at the top. The water contamination killed at least 12 people and poisoned many thousand children. This leadership has turned Michigan into a global laughing stock that will take years to recover from.

Dennis Paradis
Mon, 11/20/2017 - 11:13am

Politically, it feels good to find someone to blame but it would be more productive to be transparent about where and why the system failed to protect Flint. Unfortunately, that level of transparency is not possible when prosecution is initiated and attorneys advise not to discuss matters being litigated. We need to understand the cascade failures that allowed the Flint water crisis to happen more than we need political scapegoats.

Kevin Grand
Mon, 11/20/2017 - 11:13am

" I know that he would never knowingly or with malice act or withhold action to harm the residents of Flint or any other community in Michigan."

Interesting mea culpa, Ms. Olszewski.

Would you care to explain why someone who doesn't hide information, waited for a year to tell Gov. Snyder about the outbreak of Legionnaire's in Flint?

http://www.fox2detroit.com/news/flint-water-crisis/health-director-waite...

Adding insult to injury, there are too many versions of what really happened up in Flint with the timelines not syncing up.

http://www.detroitnews.com/story/news/michigan/flint-water-crisis/2017/1...

If the principles involved are so concerned with protecting the public health, as you maintain, one would think that they could at least get their stories straight.

Speaking as a Michigan Taxpayer, it is infuriating that not only did government officials sign off on what happened to precipitate this fiasco, but that we will also most likely be held financially accountable and made to pay for their incompetence for years to come.

You say that, "We must also work very hard to assure that any mistakes made in that situation never happen again."

Would you or would you not agree that the principles must be exposed for their part in this (regardless of who they are) and be held criminally and financially responsible, instead of Michigan Taxpayers looking at a state department or program cut (or another tax/fee increase imposed on the state) to pay for this?

Bernadette
Mon, 11/20/2017 - 7:14pm

This is a very complex issue and it should never have happened I agree. Everyone in Michigan has responsibility for this issue. The politics in Michigan have become so toxic and representation of all citizens is non existent. Rick Snyder did not have the political skills to run, and yet he did. Running a government is NOT the same as running a business.

The culture in state government changed dramatically with Snyder. The Flint issue was left unattended for way too long and this governor and his cronies did not have the insight to recognize the problem for what it was. I personally wrote letters to the governor's office months before any action was taken, and where were the legislators in all of this? NO ONE took time to listen to those people crying for help.

Fear and domination is how republicans govern. They believe in the "trickle down" theory. So right now they are letting this crisis fall-out trickle down to the staff to take responsibility. Snyder thought it enough to apologize. I have seen no soul searching necessary to understand their own roles in this, but they are doing whatever it takes to cover themselves. I have made many mistakes in my own life, and took the time to reflect on the lessons learned so I did not repeat them. I have not seen Snyder or Schuette do this. I hope voters remember this in 2018.