Truth Squad | Misleading attacks on Bill Schuette for Flint water crisis

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette is denying Democratic attacks that he waited until the Flint water crisis became a highly publicized scandal to launch a criminal investigation.

Related: Truth Squad | Bill Schuette goes foul, claims Whitmer will ‘kill’ Flint case

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette is in the crosshairs for his handling of the Flint water crisis in an ad by a PAC for the Democratic Governors Association. The ad depicts an empty desk with Schuette’s nameplate and an unanswered ringing phone - while claiming the Republican candidate for governor ignored 15 complaints about Flint’s water and only acted when it threatened his political career.

Because it distorts Schuette’s role in approving the Flint plan and overstates his responsibility for what happened to the city Truth Squad rates the ad misleading.

THE CLAIMS

“For nearly two years after he ok’d the disastrous Flint water plan, Attorney General Bill Schuette ignored 15 different complaints about the water. He ignored calls to investigate...Schuette only spoke after the story broke and threatened his political career. When Bill Schuette failed to do his job, people got hurt.”

FACTS

The outline of Flint’s water crisis is by now painfully familiar. The city, under state emergency management, switched in April 2014 from Detroit’s water system to the Flint River as a water source as a means of saving money. But officials failed to use standard corrosion protection, causing dangerous levels of lead to leach from older lead pipes, joints and fixtures into the water.

Flint reconnected to Detroit’s water system in October 2015. By then, thousands of children had been exposed to toxic levels of lead and 12 people died of  Legionnaires’ disease, deaths some experts linked to the water switch.

In December 2016, the Detroit Free Press reported that an official in Schuette’s office had signed off in March 2014 on an administrative consent order with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality that helped clear the way for the switch to the Flint River.

The article quoted a spokesperson for Schuette, who minimized the signature on the document, saying: “In this case, the signature signifies the (assistant attorney general) reviewed the document and made a determination that it met all basic legal requirements as to form, not to content, because no (assistant attorney general) sets policy for a department.”

David Turner of the Democratic Governor’s Association said Schuette could have fought the water plan had he wanted, but did not.

“If the attorney general disagreed with the content of such a significant (order) he could have used his office to push for different policy,” Turner said.

After the switch, Schuette’s office received 15 different complaints about Flint’s water between April 2014 and December 2015, The Detroit News reported.  Schuette’s office first announced it was investigating what happened in Flint in January 2016, 10 days after Gov. Rick Snyder declared a state of emergency in Flint, which brought worldwide attention to the crisis, and after other agencies launched their own probes.   

John Sellek, a spokesman for the Schuette campaign, called the ad “full of lies.”

Sellek said Schuette never approved “any part of the Flint emergency manager or executive branch policy decisions” regarding the switch to the Flint River.

“The ONLY thing the AG's office could do was say that a document was legal as to ‘form’, never the policy. Otherwise AGs would be deciding the policy decisions of the departments, not the governor and department directors.”

Sellek also said complaints about the water sent to the attorney general’s office were not ignored, since they were forwarded to the state agency that oversees water quality, MDEQ.

CONCLUSION

After any tragedy, there’s room for second guessing. But this ad, which was authorized by Schuette’s opponent, Democrat Gretchen Whitmer, takes strands of truth and reaches some unfounded and misleading characterizations.

An official from Schuette’s office did indeed sign off on an administrative order related to financing of the Karegnondi Water Authority – the water system Flint hoped to join – but that hardly means Schuette “OK’d the disastrous Flint water plan.” The AG official was tasked with ensuring the order met legal requirements. That person’s signature was not intended to be a substantive review of the order or its implications.

But it true, however, that by the time Schuette opened a criminal investigation the governor had already called for a task force to review what happened in Flint and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had started its own probe.

And there had been other public markers, months and in some cases a year or more before Schuette became involved, that something was going horribly wrong in Flint.  

A Virginia Tech study had raised alarms about the safety of Flint’s water the previous September. Shortly after that, Flint pediatrician Mona Hanna-Attisha released a study that found widespread elevated lead levels among Flint children that it tied to the water switch. Genesee County officials had issued a health emergency urging residents not to drink the water until they installed a filter or had it checked for lead.

As, the Democratic ad notes, Schuette’s office received complaints about the water going back more than a year before he took action. But in Schuette’s defense, the earlier complaints were being confidently rebutted by the state’s experts on water quality at the MDEQ who kept insisting there was no problem.

So it’s legitimate to question whether Schuette could have acted sooner in Flint’s unfolding public health disaster, and a fair critique for a political campaign. Just as Schuette’s campaign can fairly note his office eventually charged 15 state and local officials with crimes related to the crisis.

Finally, the ad’s punchline that “people got hurt” when Schuette failed to act is an accusation unsupported by available evidence. People got hurt when state and local officials responsible for safe drinking water approved a flawed plan, failed to implement it safely and, after warning signs emerged, failed to urgently identify or correct the problem.

The state task force that later investigated the crisis faulted MDEQ, the Flint Water Department, Michigan’s Department of Health and Human Services, the office of Gov. Rick Snyder and the EPA. It did not name the attorney general’s office.

Even had Schuette launched his investigation months earlier than he did, that would have done nothing to protect thousands of children and families already exposed to harm.

The ad is misleading.

Related: 2018 Bridge Michigan Voter Guide: Links to our relevant election coverage

Truth Squad rating categories

Truth Squad has reduced the number of rating categories to the following:

  • FAIR: The ad or statement is generally accurate and fairly and credibly presents the speaker’s position on the issue at hand.     
  • MISLEADING: While individual parts of the ad or statement may be accurate, it reaches a conclusion or leaves an impression about an issue or candidate that is misleading in important respects
  • FOUL: The ad or statement contains one or more material factual errors

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Comments

Eric A Schertzing
Tue, 10/16/2018 - 8:39am

History has shown Assistant Attorney Generals to be very involved "consultants" in the appropriate functions of State Departments. This is the point of elected officials and this one has let the people of Flint down.

Richard Cole
Wed, 10/17/2018 - 3:37pm

And if you ask Frank Kelley, he will probably tell you (consistent with my personal experience) that every department of state government has an assistant AG assigned to it to review pending actions and assure compliance with existing law and regulations. To say that Schuette's duties were properly discharged because he referred the numerous Flint water complaints to the responsible department is to either deny a reality of the role and responsibilities of the AG and his or her office or to confirm that the residents' numerous complaints went unanswered, as they suggest.

Don
Tue, 10/16/2018 - 8:39am

Why did Schuette destroy that leaked email were Snyder the Snake ordered the DEQ to STOP testing the water in Flint>>>> And what they the republicans are still covering up is the facts that the Flint river is loaded with Dioxins<<< aka Agent Orange,,,, The miscarage rate has went up 300%!!! Goole " agent orange pictures: and see what the republiicans really did to the people of flint!!!

Bones
Tue, 10/16/2018 - 10:28am

Do you have a source for the dioxin contamination in the Flint River? Google isn't coming up with any results

Jsabinas
Thu, 10/18/2018 - 6:39am

Will personal anecdote help? In college, late 70s, my friend, a Dow intern, was testing throughout the area for dioxins. The whole Saginaw "valley" (really a plain) was sampled. I would avoid the Flint, Tittibawasee, Shiawasee and Cass like the plague. Because they pretty much are.

Arjay
Tue, 10/16/2018 - 10:31am

Gee, Jennifer, (I know, this ad was put together by the democratic governors association, but the Bridge story says it was approved by Whitmer), if you can’t even get an attack ad right, how can we expect you to lead a state?

Kathi Geukes
Tue, 10/16/2018 - 4:07pm

Um...her first name is Gretchen....not Jennifer....and in no way is she anything like Jennifer Granholm...you Rethugs need to get over your hate for her.....you're going to lose many seats in 22 days and we will make this state right again!!!!!

Dan m
Tue, 10/16/2018 - 1:22pm

So Bill Scuette was alerted in 2014 about a major catastrophic problem, but he waited until 2016 to open an investogation?

That sounds like major gross negligence to me.

Dan M
Tue, 10/16/2018 - 1:30pm

Schuette approved, what turned out to be, catastrophic, reckless, dangerous behaviour, which resulted in the Flint water crisis.

How is that legal to "form"?

Can you please link to the actual form signed by Shuettes office?

I want to see what exactly he approved.

So, Shuette is saying that a deparmtnet head can request to engage in reckless behavior, as long as the department heads submits that request in the proper "form."?

David Zeman
Tue, 10/16/2018 - 3:55pm

Hi Dan, an image of that signature page is embedded in the Detroit Free Press story cited in this Truth Squad. Hope that helps. 

Dan M
Thu, 10/18/2018 - 7:04am

Yes the signature page is there but I want to see what legal "form" looks like to force Flint to clean up sludge and then link that cleanup to the KWA project.
That legal "form" forced a ton of debt on Flint and I want to see why exactly.
How big was the area of sludge?
Where was the sludge?
Why was the cleanup of sludge linked to the KWA project?

Dan M
Thu, 10/18/2018 - 7:08am

Bases on the facts presented in the article, it is misleading to label Whitmers ad misleading.

Shuette exhibited higkky questionable behaviour and he clearly massive conflicts of interest, especially regarding the enforcement order, which may or may not be legal to "form"

Bridge has now lost all credibility regarding their position on this issue.

Don
Sun, 10/21/2018 - 7:15am

Is not the Ag still covering up for Snyder?? And why is the new not saying one word about the Dioxins aka Agent orange in the flint river that caused the leaching of the lead???

Geoffrey Owen
Thu, 11/01/2018 - 9:41pm

Despite the allegations and distortions, the Flint water crisis happened and is still happening. The Governor and the AG have done little to rectify the problem over the course of four years. The elevation of Schuette to the Governor position is not going to correct the wrongdoing and will leave the people in Flint with another bad taste. I believe it's time for some new faces to sort this out and give the public some confidence that the Flint issue can be corrected and a once vibrant community at least have decent water after all that has been stripped from them. Michigan faces many other environmental issues that have not been dealt with under the current administration, issues Schuette should have agressively pursued in his role as AG while lusting after the role of governor.