LANSING — Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy and her office will join the team prosecuting defendants charged with Flint water crisis-related crimes, Attorney General Dana Nessel announced Thursday, detailing a shakeup in how her office will handle those cases and civil lawsuits against the state.
Worthy will team with Michigan Solicitor General Fadwa Hammoud on the criminal cases, allowing Nessel to focus on resolving dozens of civil suits against the state related to the Flint crisis.
Special prosecutor Todd Flood, hired by Nessel’s Republican predecessor Bill Schuette, will remain involved as a special assistant attorney general, Nessel announced.
Under Schuette, 15 state and local officials were charged with a wide range of crimes as serious as manslaughter. Many have pleaded to lesser charges; none has yet gone to prison. The state has spent millions of dollars on the criminal and civil cases.
A Democrat in her first year in office, Nessel was highly critical during the campaign of how Schuette handled the prosecutions.
On Thursday, Nessel said she was alarmed to find few people in her office actively involved in the prosecutions, leaving them to Flood’s private firm. Most in the office were working on the civil cases.
“You had a private firm handling these cases and practically no oversight whatsoever,” she told reporters.
Nessel said she would increase oversight by putting Hammoud, a former attorney in the Wayne County prosecutor’s office, in charge of the prosecutions while bringing Worthy and her team aboard.
“It was really important for us to have people working on these cases who were accountable to this office and accountable directly to the people of the state,” Nessel said.
Nessel is herself a former assistant Wayne County prosecutor and briefly worked for Worthy before leaving for private practice in 2005.
Hammoud said Nessel ensured her office would be “well-equipped and laser-focused” on those cases and said her office was “bringing the power back to the people by making sure that the leadership of the Flint water crisis cases comes directly from (the attorney general’s) office.”
Hammoud said she had no preconceived notions of who should be charged with Flint-related crimes and would let the evidence guide her.
“I come into this role with concern for the victims of the public health crisis in the city of Flint, and my only preconceived notion deals with whether or not the people of Flint were wronged. They were,” Hammoud said.
Meanwhile, Nessel said she’d divorce herself from the criminal cases and focus on resolving the civil cases against state officials. The allegations run the gamut from personal injury and property rights claims, to violations of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.
Of the 15 people charged in the Flint scandal, seven defendants have struck deals, pleading “no contest” to misdemeanors.
Two former top state executives, former Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon and former Chief Medical Executive Eden Wells, are heading to trial on charges of involuntary manslaughter and other crimes.
Two former Flint emergency managers are facing felony charges including committing false pretenses. One of them, Gerald Ambrose, is awaiting trial after skipping a preliminary examination. The other, Darnell Earley, is still in preliminary exams.
The crisis led to dozens of civil lawsuits against city and state defendants, including 79 that Nessel said she’d focus on settling for the state, with a firewall between her and the prosecuting team.
In January, the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled proceedings in one suit could proceed against the City of Flint as well as several city and Michigan Department of Environmental Quality employees who had sought protection under sovereign immunity.
“As with the Flint defendants, these MDEQ defendants created the Flint Water environmental disaster and then intentionally attempted to cover-up their grievous decision,” the majority wrote. “Their actions shock our conscience. It is alleged that these defendants acted with deliberate indifference to the plaintiffs’ constitutional right to bodily integrity and at a minimum were plainly incompetent.”
Plaintiffs lawyers and other experts said the ruling could shape the outcome of other civil cases surrounding the Flint crisis.
Flint, led by an emergency manager appointed by then-Gov. Rick Snyder, switched drinking water sources to the Flint River in 2014 to save $5 million. The state approved the change but didn’t require any treatment to control corrosion of aging water mains.
The highly corrosive Flint River rusted the mains, causing lead to leach into drinking water, exposing families to the neurotoxin that damages development of the brain and nervous system.
State regulators first ignored the problem, then tried to discredit whistleblowers. And experts suspect a spate of Legionnaires disease cases in Flint was connected to poor water treatment after the city switched sources.
Related Michigan attorney general stories: