Snyder allies: Flint charges may have ‘chilling effect’ on government
LANSING — If former Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder can be criminally charged for the Flint water crisis could current Gov. Gretchen Whitmer be charged for policies that may have contributed to nursing home deaths in the COVID-19 pandemic?
It’s a question that Snyder's allies are asking after Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel’s Office of Special Counsel announced new criminal charges Wednesday resulting from a years-long Flint probe.
Snyder, who has pleaded not guilty, faces two counts of willful neglect of duty in office, misdemeanors punishable by up to one year behind bars or a $1,000 fine.
The exact allegations against the former Republican governor aren’t publicly known because the indictments arose from a confidential one-judge grand jury, whose deliberations will remain a secret under state law.
Several Snyder aides and appointees face more serious charges, including former Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon and former Chief Medical Executive Eden Wells. They both are charged with nine counts of involuntary manslaughter for deaths linked to outbreaks of Legionnaires’ disease in Genesee County.
To some Flint residents, it’s justice long overdue. But Jim Haveman, who preceded Lyon as health director, contended the state is criminalizing decision-making.
“We want people to be brave and to make decisions, not to shy away from them,” said Haveman, who served under Snyder. “And I think it’s going to have a chilling effect even on people wanting to go into public service.”
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Lyon was previously accused of failing to alert the public to Legionnaires’ disease outbreaks. But his allies contend a local hospital – not the Flint water switch – was a primary source of those outbreaks. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in a 2019 report, said McLaren Flint had been linked to legionella spread for more than a decade, long before the local water contamination crisis.
His attorney, Chip Chamberlain, said Lyon is innocent and called his arraignment a “dangerous day for state employees.”
Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy, who helped lead the investigation, dismissed those concerns, noting that Snyder is the first Michigan governor charged with crimes related to decisions made in office.
“This goes far beyond… just failing to supervise or someone making a mistake on your staff,” Worthy said. “As the evidence comes out, it will be plain for everybody to see why in fact charges were absolutely necessary in this case.”
The grand jury indictment offers few details, but it shows Snyder is accused of “failing to inquire into the performance, condition and administration of the public officers and offers that he appointed” and “failing to declare a state of emergency and/or disaster when he had notice of a threat.”
Snyder declared a state of emergency for Flint in January 2016, roughly 20 months after a state-appointed emergency manager switched the city’s water source as a cost-saving measure.
Residents complained for months about the color and taste of water, but were repeatedly assured by the state it was safe to drink. Michigan officials only relented after private tests showed the water was contaminated.
Snyder also announced a deadly legionella outbreak in January 2016 and said he had learned about the matter days earlier. An aide later contradicted the governor in court, saying he told Snyder about Legionnaires’ in December 2015.
Flint residents want more
The debate about government decisions is less important than the impact of them to Flint residents, who were exposed to toxic lead levels and are still awaiting finalization of a $641.2 settlement with the state.
Two years ago, Worthy and Michigan Solicitor General Fadwa Hammoud dismissed earlier cases to restart what they said called a flawed investigation under former Attorney General Bill Schuette, who had charged more than a dozen state and local officials but stopped short of Snyder.
Residents have spent years awaiting justice, and new charges are “not enough,” said Kaleka Lewis, 48, who coordinates food and bottled water distribution sites in Flint.
“We have children, we have older people, we have young people that have been traumatized and hurt by this situation. And they’re just trying to put a Band-Aid on it.”
Other Flint residents called the indictments a good first step toward accountability in the water crisis, which exposed tens of thousands of residents to toxic lead in their water in 2014.
For years, it felt “as though the governor was getting off scot free and that other players who were also bad actors were getting away with it too,” said Eileen Hayes, executive director of Michigan Faith in Action, a Flint-based social justice group.
“The idea that now, something is going to happen — there is some solace in that.”
State Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, said the charges are a reminder that “no matter your position, power, or wealth, when you abuse the powers of your office and harm the very people you were sworn to serve, you will be held accountable.”
“These charges tell a story of broad systemic failure. I raised my voice against this for years, but these people lied to me, they lied to the people of Flint, they lied to everyone,” Ananich said. “They caused unforgivable harm to Flint’s children and betrayed the trust of a city.”
No ‘velvet ropes’ for government officials
During his tenure atop the state health department, Haveman said he dealt with measles, meningitis, Legionella and other infectious outbreaks that required quick but thoughtful responses, based on science and the best available evidence.
That process has worsened since initial charges in the Flint water crisis, he argued.
“I’ve already seen in the last four or five years at the department a risk aversion to go out on a limb to make decisions,” Haveman told Bridge.
“Nobody wants to be pointed to, so four or five people are involved in decision making, and it’s really harmed, I think, public health issues.”
That’s especially problematic during the COVID-19 pandemic, Haveman wrote this week in a memo distributed to colleagues and reporters.
“COVID-19 nursing home patients were placed back into nursing homes from hospitals resulting in deaths of nursing home patients,” he said, citing a controversial but short-lived policy from the Whitmer administration.
“Should persons at MDHHS or the governor’s office be charged criminally for the decisions they made during an evolving and difficult situation? If your answer is no, then there should be no new charges in the Flint water investigation.”
After Lyon was first charged in 2017, the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials said the charges levied by Schuette were “unprecedented” and would lead government officials to second-guess their own decision-making process, potentially stalling important actions for fear of legal repercussions.
“An official’s exercise of judgment, made in good faith, has never been subject to criminal sanctions in this country,” the association said in a court filing.“Reversing that principle now, in a field rife with uncertainty and in a case where there are still not clear answers, would not only violate due process, but it would make it impossible for public health officials to perform their duties responsibly.”
Rich Baird, a top adviser to Snyder, bemoaned the “chilling” effect in a 2017 address to state workers, criticizing what he called an "incredible overreach [that's] having an effect on our employees all the way down the chain."
Baird was indicted Thursday on charges of misconduct in office, perjury, obstruction of justice and extortion.While his attorney said he’s innocent, Hammoud, the state’s solicitor general, accused Baird of “threatening a state-appointed research team” during an investigation into the source of the Legionnaires’ disease outbreak in Genesee County.
“Our approach was simple: where we believed crimes were committed, under the law and the evidence supported, we sought indictments, and we obtained those indictments on those criminal acts,” Hammoud said. “Public officials are subject to the same laws as everybody else.
“There are no velvet ropes in our criminal justice system.”
Bridge Michigan reporter Kelly House contributed to this report.
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