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

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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