(Bloomberg) -- Former Michigan Governor Rick Snyder and eight other former officials could face jail time stemming from the disastrous contamination of water supplies in the city of Flint, after the state levied an array of charges against them ranging from neglect of duty to involuntary manslaughter.
The charges, filed by the Michigan attorney general, were a renewed effort to hold public officials accountable for the 2014 decision temporarily get drinking water from the Flint River. The water contained contaminants that leached lead from pipes, polluting supplies to thousands in the majority-Black, rust-belt city. Studies found the contamination may have been the cause of a Legionnaire’s disease outbreak and several deaths in the area.
The Flint probe has taken years. The investigation was paused and then relaunched in 2019, based on what authorities said at the time was improper influence exerted by state officials and the law firms representing them. Michigan agreed to pay $600 million into a victim’s compensation fund last year for residents who were exposed to the water.
Prosecutors on Thursday declined to discuss the evidence they relied on to present the cases and secure indictments from the grand jury, and charging documents released by the state contained little detail.
Snyder, a Republican, was arraigned Thursday on two misdemeanor charges of willful neglect of duty in state court in Genesee County. The charges are “wholly without merit,” his lawyer said.
“It would be a travesty to waste additional taxpayer dollars pursuing these bogus misdemeanor charges,” Snyder attorney Brian Lennon said in an emailed statement. “We are confident Gov. Snyder will be fully exonerated if this flimsy case goes to trial. Today’s charges do nothing to bring justice to the people of Flint. These unjustified allegations do nothing to resolve a painful chapter in the history of our state. Today’s actions merely perpetrate an outrageous political persecution.”
Former state health director Nicholas Lyon and Eden Wells, the state’s former chief medical executive, were charged with nine counts of involuntary manslaughter related to deaths stemming from the crisis, court records show. Through their attorneys, both denied the charges, which are felonies that potentially carry 15-year prison terms.
Lyon “did not make the decision to switch the water supply and had nothing to do with handling the water,” defense lawyer Chip Chamberlain said in a statement. Lyon’s official actions were “based on the advice of highly trained epidemiologists and public health scientists and experts who themselves were looking at the science and following the data,” Chamberlain said. “It’s apparent that once again, the Attorney General has ignored the facts and the evidence. This is a dangerous day for state employees.”
Wells “has always been a dedicated and competent public health professional,” said her lawyer, Jerold Lax. “The charges will be vigorously contested.”
Others faced a smattering of felonies and misdemeanors including neglect of duty, misconduct, perjury, false statements and extortion. Authorities said the other charges resulted from obscuring health data, providing misinformation about water quality and threatening a research team that was trying to determine the source of the Legionnaire’s outbreak.
In announcing the charges, state prosecutors emphasized they had pursued the evidence without favor to some of the state’s most powerful figures.
“The people of Flint continue to suffer from the catastrophic failure of public officials at all levels of government who trampled upon their trust and evaded accountability for far too long,” said Fadwa Hammoud, the state’s solicitor general. “Government power is not granted as a blank check. It is borrowed by those who swear an oath to faithfully discharge their duties in service of the people.”
Flint’s water supply was switched back to water sourced from Lake Huron in 2015, but by then the city’s water quality had already been compromised. Snyder declared a state of emergency in the surrounding area, Genesee County, in 2016.
(Updates with comments from defense lawyers, background of case.)
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