CHICAGO – Five officials, including a former Flint emergency manager and a member of Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration, are facing involuntary manslaughter charges for their alleged roles in the Flint water contamination crisis and ensuing Legionnaire’s disease outbreak that claimed 12 lives.
The five charged Wednesday are Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon, former Flint EM Darnell Earley, former Flint Water Department Manager Howard Crost, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s former drinking water chief, Liane Shekter-Smith, and Stephen Busch, a district water supervisor at the DEQ. All but Lyon already faced less severe Flint-related charges.
“Involuntary manslaughter is a very serious crime and a very serious charge and holds significant gravity and weight for all involved,” Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette said at a news conference to announce the new criminal charges approved by a Genesee County judge. Schuette was joined by Genesee County Prosecutor David Leyton, Flint Water Investigation Special Prosecutor Todd Flood, and Chief Investigator Andrew Arena.
Involuntary manslaughter is punishable by up to 15 years in prison and/or a $7,500 fine. The charges are the latest from Schuette in a criminal investigation launched in January 2016 to determine if state laws were broken in connection with the Flint crisis.
The contamination occurred after the city's contract with Detroit to receive Lake Huron water ended and the city shifted to Flint River water in April 2014 as it awaited the completion of the new, bond-financed Karegnondi water pipeline. The $285 million pipeline was to provide Lake Huron water to Flint and Genesee County communities. Flint has since said it will stick with Detroit- supplied water.
The city failed to properly treat the Flint River water and in the fall of 2015 shifted back to Detroit-supplied water, but the lead contamination of the city water continued due to pipe corrosion from the improperly treated river water.
Multiple Flint-area residents died of Legionnaires’ disease in the time immediately following the switch. All defendants are charged with involuntary manslaughter in relation to the death of Robert Skidmore, 85, according to AG documents.
“Skidmore died of Legionnaires’ disease after many others had been diagnosed with the illness, yet no public outbreak notice had been issued. The charges allege failure to notify and lack of action to stop the outbreak allowed the disease to continue its spread through Flint’s water system,” documents read.
Lyon was additionally charged with a felony count of misconduct in office which holds a five-year prison term and/or a $10,000 fine. A sixth person -- Department of Health and Human Services chief medical executive Eden Wells -- was charged with lying to a peace officer and obstruction of justice for allegedly attempting to stop an investigation into the health crisis in Flint and later misleading investigators as to her actions.
The announcement Wednesday brings to 51 the number of charges leveled against 15 current and former local and state officials as a result of the probe during which 180 witnesses have been interviewed.
Schuette released an 18-page interim investigation report Wednesday.
“The Flint Water Crisis caused children to be exposed to lead poisoning, witnessed an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease resulting in multiple deaths and created a lack of trust and confidence in the effectiveness of government to solve problems,” the report says. “Many families still drink, cook and bathe only with bottled water.”
Schuette pre-empted questions over the governor's fate. “We only file criminal charges when evidence of probable cause to commit a crime has been established and we are not filing charges at this time,” he said, adding that attempts to interview Snyder have so far failed.
Snyder released a statement after the charges were announced in support of Lyon and Wells.
“Director Lyon and Dr. Wells have been and continue to be instrumental in Flint's recovery. They have my full faith and confidence, and will remain on duty at DHHS,” Snyder said. He also questioned the length of time some charged state employees have waited for their cases to proceed.
Former EM Earley was previously charged with felony false pretenses, conspiracy to commit false pretenses and misconduct in office.
“During his terms as emergency manager, Earley contributed to the decisions that allegedly caused the death of Robert Skidmore by keeping the city on the water source even as it became obvious the source should be switched back to Detroit Water & Sewer,” documents said.
Earley was charged in December along with another former EM, Gerald Ambrose. Both were appointed by Snyder. The charges stemmed from their alleged role in paving the way under false pretenses for the city’s 34% repayment pledge on a $220 million 2014 bond financing issued by the Karegnondi water authority.
The prior charges accused Earley of allowing the Flint Water Treatment Plant to distribute the water despite knowledge the plant was not ready for use and making false and misleading public statements that the water was safe to drink. In congressional testimony, he claimed that other officials assured him the water was safe.
Earley was named EM by Snyder in September 2013 and served until January 2015.
Nationally, the crisis sparked congressional hearings and cast a national spotlight on the problems with old lead pipes used to deliver water across the country. A congressional probe faulted state and federal authorities.
At the state level, Snyder and his administration have come under fire for the state's slow reaction to the crisis as have federal environmental protection authorities. The crisis has also cast a negative light on the state's EM law for distressed local governments.
“It is important to remember that the Flint water crisis is not over. The state and the governor created this crisis and they must do more to help Flint’s recovery,” U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Mich., a Flint native, said in a statement.