9 officials charged for Flint water crisis, Snyder pleads not guilty

By: - January 14, 2021 2:53 pm

Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy, Jan. 14, 2021 | Screenshot

Updated, 3:27 p.m., 1/14/21

Former Gov. Rick Snyder and eight other high-level officials have been charged in connection with the water crisis that devastated the city of Flint. The scandal left at least 12 people dead and thousands of people, including children, with lead-contaminated drinking water in what residents, activists and researchers have described as one of the most egregious cases of environmental racism the state, and country, has ever faced.

“There are no velvet ropes in our criminal justice system,” Michigan Solicitor General Fadwa Hammoud said at a Thursday press conference, during which prosecutors announced the charges. “Nobody, no matter how powerful or well-connected, is above accountability when they commit a crime.”

Former Gov. Rick Snyder pleads not guilty on two charges stemming from the Flint water crisis, Jan. 14, 2021 | Screenshot

Hammoud and Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy announced that, following a year of grand jury proceedings, Snyder has been charged with two counts of willful neglect of duty, misdemeanors that carry a punishment of up to one year in prison and/or a $1,000 fine. Snyder is the first governor in Michigan to face criminal charges for conduct that allegedly occurred while in office. The former governor pleaded not guilty to the charges in the 67th District Court of Genesee County Thursday morning.

Hammoud and Worthy led the investigation that Nessel called on Thursday “the largest criminal investigation in the history of the state of Michigan.” After taking office in 2019, Nessel dropped a problem-plagued investigation by her predecessor, former Attorney General Bill Schuette, in order to start a new investigation under her leadership. 

The others charged include: 

  • Jarrod Agen, the former director of communications and former chief of staff for Snyder, who went on to be Vice President Mike Pence’s communications director. He faces one count of perjury, a felony that is punishable by up to 15 years in prison.
  • Gerald Ambrose, the former city of Flint emergency manager. He is charged with four counts of misconduct in office, each of which carry up to five years in prison and/or a $10,000 fine.
  • Richard Baird, the former transformation manager and senior adviser for Snyder. He is charged with one county of perjury, for which he faces up to 15 years in prison; one count of official misconduct, which carries up to five years in prison and/or a $10,000 fine; one count of obstruction of justice, for which he faces up to five years in prison and/or a $10,000 fine; and one count of extortion, which carries up to 20 years in prison and /or a $10,000 fine.
  • Howard Croft, the former director of the city of Flint’s Department of Public Works. Croft is charged with two counts of willful neglect of duty; each count is a misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in prison and/or a $1,000 fine.
  • Darnell Earley, the former emergency manager for the city of Flint. He is charged with three counts of misconduct in office, felonies that are each punishable by up to five years in prison and/or a $10,000 fine.
  • Nicolas Lyon, the former director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. He is charged with nine counts of involuntary manslaughter, felonies for which he faces up to 15 years in prison for each count and/or a $7,500 fine for each count. Lyon is also charged with one count of willful neglect of duty, a one-year misdemeanor and/or a $1,000 fine.
  • Nancy Peeler, the manager of Michigan Department of Health and Human Services’ early childhood health section. She is charged with two counts of misconduct in office, each a felony punishable but up to five years in prison and/or a $10,000 fine. She is also charged with one count of willful neglect of duty, a misdemeanor for which she faces up to one year imprisonment and/or a $1,000 fine.
  • Eden Wells, the former chief medical executive at the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. Wells is charged with nine counts of involuntary manslaughter, with each county being a felony punishable by up to 15 years in prison and/or a $7,500 fine. Wells is also charged with two counts of misconduct in office, for which she faces up to five years in prison and/or a $10,000 fine, and one count of willful neglect of duty, a misdemeanor which could result in one year of imprisonment and/or a $1,000 fine.

Each of the defendants turned themselves in and were arraigned Thursday before Judge Elizabeth A. Kelly for the Seventh Circuit Court and Chief Judge Christopher Odette for the 67th District Court. 

Brian Lennon, an attorney from Warner Norcross and Judd who is representing Snyder, slammed the charges.

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“The two misdemeanor charges filed … against former Gov. Rick Snyder are wholly without merit and this entire situation is puzzling,” Lennon said in an emailed statement.

“Today’s charges do nothing to bring justice to the people of Flint,” Lennon continued in the same statement. “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.”

Baird’s attorney, Randall Levine, also called the charges “politically motivated.”

Mr. Baird is innocent of any wrongdoing and is being unfairly prosecuted by the state’s Democratic attorney general,” Levine said in an emailed statement.

“The people of Flint are justifiably upset and angry about what happened in Flint,” Levine continued. “Their government failed them at so many levels.  However, the evidence will show that Rich Baird is not responsible for what occurred to the folks in the town where he grew up. I expect that he will be vindicated.”

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Worthy said “this case has nothing to do with partisanship.”

“It has to do with human decency, resurrecting the complete abandonment of the people of Flint, and finally, finally holding people accountable for the unspeakable alleged atrocities that harmed this city for years,” she said during the press conference. “Pure and simple this case is about justice, truth, accountability, poisoned children, lost lives, shattered families that are still not whole, and simply giving a damn about all of humanity.”

Snyder oversaw the state when the Flint water crisis began in 2014. Flint — where a majority of its approximately 100,000 residents are Black and where 45% of its population live at or below federal poverty levels — came under state control in 2011. 

In 2014, state-appointed emergency managers tried to save money by switching the city’s water supply from Detroit to a financially cheaper alternative: temporarily using water from the Flint River until a new Lake Huron pipeline was built. This, however, was done without implementing anti-corrosion treatments, and the old pipes leeched lead into the city’s drinking water. Lead poisoning, which can often occur with no obvious symptoms, can cause learning disabilities, behavioral problems, seizures, coma, and death, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

University of Michigan researcher Paul Mohai called the switch a disastrous decision.

Michigan Solicitor General Fadwa Hammoud, Jan. 14, 2021 | Screenshot

“Given the magnitude of the disaster in Flint, the role that public officials’ decisions played that led to the poisoning of the city’s water, their slow pace at acknowledging and responding to the problem, and the fact that Flint is a city of almost 100,000 people indeed makes this the most egregious example of environmental injustice and racism in my over three decades of studying this issue,” Mohai said in 2019.

Hammoud said during Thursday’s press conference that the Flint water crisis “is not some relic of the past.”

“At this very moment, the people of Flint continue to suffer from the categorical failure of public officials at all levels of government, who trampled upon their trust, and evaded accountability for far too long,” she said.

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician and professor whose research helped to expose the Flint water crisis, said in a statement that the news of the indictments is “a salve, but it isn’t the end of the story.”

“Healing wounds and restoring trust will take decades and long-term resources,” she wrote. “I am hopeful this news serves as a reminder of Flint’s lessons; where the perfect storm of environmental injustice, indifferent bureaucracy, lost democracy and austerity, compounded by decades of racism and deindustrialization left a city powerless and forgotten. Never again should this country have to deal with the generational repercussions of a community poisoned by policies.”

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For Candice Mushatt, a Flint advocate, the announcement of the indictments “come with a lot of different emotions.”

“In the case of the [former] governor, there’s the possibility of him walking away only having paid $2,000 when 100,000 lives have been affected in ways we won’t know for years to come,” Mushatt said Thursday. “… Imagine what message that sends to 100,000 residents. There’s the possibility of him walking away only having paid $2,000 for something he never really accepted responsibility for. That’s not even a slap on the wrist. There have been so many chances Rick Snyder has had to show remorse, and every time he has not done it. The only conclusion we come to is he’s not sorry.”

After years of residents fighting for justice, Mushatt said she and her city dream of a time when they can wake up each day and not have to worry they’re being poisoned by their own government.

“We have a rich history of standing up, of being resilient–I know we all long for a day when we don’t have to be resilient, when we can just live, when we can turn on our tap and be ok,” she said. “And we’re not there yet. Even though they’ve replaced a good amount of the pipes, people’s in-home fixtures are still damaged. Once they turn on that tap, they still run the risk of lead contaminated water.”

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Anna Gustafson
Anna Gustafson

Anna Gustafson is the assistant editor at Michigan Advance, where her beats include economic justice, health care and immigration. Previously the founder of the Muskegon Times and the editor at Rapid Growth Media in Grand Rapids, Anna has worked as an editor and reporter for news outlets across the country. She began her journalism career reporting on state politics in Wisconsin and has gone on to cover government, racial justice and immigration reform in New York City, education in Connecticut, the environment in Wyoming, and more. Previously, Anna lived in Argentina and Morocco, and, when she’s not working, she’s often trying to perfect the empanada and couscous recipes she fell in love with in these countries. You’ll likely also find her working on her century-old home in downtown Lansing, writing that ever-elusive novel and hiking throughout Michigan.

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