The Michigan attorney general’s office on Wednesday charged the director of the state’s health department and four other public officials with involuntary manslaughter for their roles in the Flint water crisis, which has stretched into its third year.
Nick Lyon, director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, also faces a felony count of misconduct in office.
While much of the attention in Flint has focused on the lead-tainted water that exposed thousands of young children to potential long-term health risks, the crisis also has been linked to an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease that contributed to at least a dozen deaths. Those cases ultimately led to the charges Wednesday for Lyon, as well as for the state’s chief medical executive, Eden Wells, who faces charges of obstruction of justice and lying to a police officer but is not accused of manslaughter.
Attorney General Bill Schuette also charged four other state and city officials, who already were facing various criminal accusations, with involuntary manslaughter: Stephen Busch, a water supervisor for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality; Darnell Earley, who had been a state-appointed emergency manager for Flint; Howard Croft, former director of the city’s public works department; and Liane Shekter-Smith, who served as chief of the state’s Office of Drinking Water.
Lyon was aware of the Legionnaires’ disease outbreak by early 2015 but “did not notify the public until a year later,” according to charging documents filed in court and reviewed by the Detroit Free Press. According to the documents, he “willfully disregarded the deadly nature of the Legionnaires’ disease outbreak,” later saying “[we] can’t save everyone,” and “everyone has to die of something.”
The attorney general’s office alleges that Lyon was personally briefed on the situation in Genesee County, where figures showed the number of Legionnaire’s cases was more than three times the annual average. Lyon allegedly also refused an early offer of help from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and hindered scientists from researching whether the spike in Legionnaires’ cases was linked to the city’s switch to water from the Flint River.
Those failures, investigators claim, led to the 2015 death of Robert Skidmore, an 85-year-old man who was treated at McLaren Flint hospital.
Investigators separately accused Wells of threatening to hold back funding for the Flint Area Community Health and Environment Partnership if the organization did not stop looking for the source of the outbreak. She also was charged with lying to an officer about when she became aware of the sharp increase in Legionnaires’ cases.
“We absolutely, vehemently dispute the charges. They are baseless,” Lyon’s attorney, Chip Chamberlain, said Wednesday. “We intend to provide a vigorous defense of Mr. Lyon. We expect the justice system to vindicate him entirely.”
In a statement, Gov. Rick Snyder (R) also defended Lyon and Wells, saying they have his full confidence and would remain employed at the health department.
“Nick Lyon has been a strong leader at the Department of Health and Human Services for the past several years and remains completely committed to Flint’s recovery,” Snyder said. “Director Lyon and Dr. Eden Wells, like every other person who has been charged with a crime by Bill Schuette, are presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Some state employees were charged over a year ago and have been suspended from work since that time. They still have not had their day in court. That is not justice for Flint nor for those who have been charged.”
Schuette on Wednesday addressed the pressure he has gotten to charge Snyder, who has heard repeated calls to resign for his appointment of emergency mangers in Flint and the state’s delayed and inadequate response there.
“We only file criminal charges when evidence of probable cause to commit a crime has been established,” Schuette said. He later revealed that investigators have been unable to speak with Snyder about his role in the catastrophe. “We attempted to interview the governor. We were not successful,” he said.
Mona Hanna-Attisha, the Flint doctor who went public with test results showing the spike in high blood-lead levels in the city’s children, said Wednesday that, regardless of the charges, Wells was instrumental in getting top state officials to acknowledge the growing disaster after they initially dismissed its seriousness.
“I do want to remind everyone that after my research went public, and the state went after me, Dr. Wells was critical in getting her colleagues in the Snyder administration to finally understand and respond to the gravity of the crisis,” Hanna-Attisha said. But, she added, “restorative justice and accountability are critical to the journey toward healing Flint.”
For decades, Flint paid Detroit to have its water piped in from Lake Huron, with anti-corrosion chemicals added along the way. But in early 2014, with the city under the control of a state-appointed emergency manager, officials switched to Flint River water in an ill-fated effort to save money.
State officials failed to ensure proper corrosion-control treatment of the new water source. That failure allowed rust, iron and lead to leach from aging pipes and wind up in residents’ homes. The ensuing catastrophe exposed thousands of children to high levels of lead, which can cause long-term physical damage and mental impairment.
Since a task force began probing the debacle in early 2016, Schuette has filed more than 50 criminal charges against 15 state and local officials – many of whom now face multiple felonies – as well as civil suits against outside companies that worked with the Flint water system. He and his team have insisted they will continue to follow where the evidence leads.
Former Wayne County prosecutor Todd Flood, who is helping lead the Flint investigation, said the latest charges reflect a “willful disregard of duty” on the part of numerous public servants. He said that while he hopes the charges bring accountability and a sense of justice to Flint residents, there was little cause for celebration.
“There are no winners here,” he said. “We cannot bring back Mr. Skidmore. We can’t bring back the lost loved ones that died from legionella. I wish we could turn back the hands of time, but we can’t.”