During the inauguration of his successor, outgoing Michigan Governor Rick Snyder needed a favor.
At the January 2019 event, Snyder approached Karen Weaver, who was then the mayor of Flint, a city of nearly 100,000 people that was still reeling from financial decay and a toxic-water crisis. He asked whether she could meet with Congressman Elijah Cummings.
“You have a lot of influence with him,” Weaver remembered a worried Snyder saying to her about Cummings. At the time, Cummings was the incoming chairman of the powerful U.S. House Oversight Committee.
Throughout the water crisis, Cummings led the charge as Congress demanded Snyder and his administration provide more information about what he knew about the poisonous water that ravaged the impoverished majority-minority Rust Belt city after it switched water sources to the corrosive Flint River in 2014, and when he knew it. More specifically, Cummings pushed for more information on when Snyder first learned of the lethal Legionella pneumophila bacterial outbreak in Flint. Snyder testified to Congress that he first became aware of Legionella in January 2016 and held a press conference the next day. Flint residents didn’t believe the governor; their doubt intensified after Harvey Hollins, the director of the state’s Urban and Metropolitan Initiatives office, contradicted the governor, testifying in court that he informed Snyder about Flint’s Legionella outbreak in December 2015.
Back at the inauguration, Weaver said, Snyder asked her to get Cummings to “back off” from investigating him, emphasizing that he wanted to move on with his life as a private citizen. He said “it would go a long way” if the request to the congressman came from her, Weaver recalled to VICE. Weaver’s former spokesperson, Candice Mushatt, as well as two other sources, confirmed that she had described the governor’s request to them after it occurred. (Snyder did not respond to multiple requests for comment on this story).
What Snyder didn’t know then was that Cummings and Weaver had already spoken after Democrats won control of the House in the 2018 midterm election. Weaver said Cummings disclosed his plan to compel Snyder back to Congress for additional questioning. He wanted her there. But Cummings’ death in October 2019 prevented that from occurring.
After a VICE investigation spanning a year and a half across the state of Michigan, overwhelming evidence indicates Snyder had good reason to worry.
Hundreds of confidential pages of documents obtained by VICE, along with emails and interviews, reveal a coordinated, five-year cover-up overseen by Snyder and his top officials to prevent news of Flint’s deadly water from going public—while there was still time to save lives—and then limit the damage after the crisis made global headlines.
All told, the waterborne bacterial disease may have killed at least 115 people in 2014 and 2015, and potentially more whose pneumonia wasn’t officially considered Legionnaires’ disease, the illness caused by Legionella. In addition to the outbreak, Flint's water supply was contaminated with lead and other heavy metals, harmful bacteria, carcinogens, and other toxic components. This wreaked havoc on Flint residents, leaving them with a laundry list of illnesses, including kidney and liver problems, severe bone and muscle pain, gastrointestinal problems, loss of teeth, autoimmune diseases, neurological deficiencies, miscarriages, Parkinson’s disease, severe fatigue, seizures, and volatile mood disorders.
Beyond this, the long-term effects of heavy-metal poisoning takes years to develop, meaning many ill residents’ conditions are worsening as the years go on. Many have said they still rely on bottled water to avoid using the water that comes through their pipes and into their homes, schools, and businesses.
VICE has learned that prosecutors leading the criminal investigation secretly subpoenaed key members of Snyder’s inner circle, including chief of staff Dennis Muchmore, Snyder's “fixer" and top adviser Rich Baird, and state treasurer Andy Dillon, as they built a case against the governor. Documents reveal the governor’s chief legal counsel, Beth Clement, knew Snyder’s top officials were subpoenaed by prosecutors, suggesting Snyder knew as well (a spokesperson for Clement, now a judge, said she couldn’t comment on a case pending in any court). The aggressive investigation into Snyder may explain why the governor’s office’s legal fees, paid for by state taxpayers, came to at least $8.5 million in the years after the water crisis made national headlines.
Snyder and his administration were investigated by a team led by special prosecutor Todd Flood from 2016 to 2019. The team concluded that the administration had “committed conspiracies of ongoing crimes, like an organized crime unit,” a source with knowledge of the probe told VICE.
But before a case against Snyder could develop, the state’s newly appointed attorney general, Dana Nessel, fired top prosecutors and investigators pursuing the case.
Investigative subpoena documents obtained by VICE, along with details from sources with knowledge of the Flint water criminal prosecution, reveal that:
- Snyder was warned about the dangers of using the Flint River as a water source a year before the water switch even occurred.
- Snyder had knowledge of the Legionella outbreak in Flint as early as October 2014, six months after the water switch—and 16 months earlier than he claimed to have learned of the deadly outbreak in testimony under oath before Congress.
- communication among Snyder, his top officials, and the state health department spiked in October 2014 around the same time state environmental and health officials traded emails and calls about the Legionella outbreak in Flint.
According to sources familiar with the criminal investigation, as well as Flint residents VICE spoke to, during those 16 months, Snyder’s top advisor, Baird, attempted to pay off sick Flint residents to keep quiet and silenced a whistleblower sounding alarms over the city using the Flint River while there was still time to save lives. And Snyder himself “punished” Weaver, Flint’s mayor, she said, after she repeatedly refused his administration’s requests for her to declare the water safe in Flint to residents.
What follows is the full, never-before-told story behind the cover-up of a government poisoning tens of thousands of innocent people—and the ongoing, six-year-old crisis.
When Rick Snyder became the governor of Michigan, Flint was broke.
Mired in a $10.1 million deficit in 2010, the city had deteriorated after the slow exit of its one-time economic engine, General Motors, for cheaper offshore pastures. Yet there seemed to be a way to save cash. Flint had been paying $11 to $12 million annually for drinking water funneled from Detroit Water and Sewage (DWSD), which, at the time, was the third-largest water and sewage utility in the country, covering 40 percent of Michigan’s residents. State and city officials saw slashing Flint’s water bill as the way to get the city back in the black.
Snyder, the former president of Gateway Computers, won his gubernatorial bid in 2010 after campaigning as a “tough nerd” who could turn around Michigan’s ailing cities the same way he’d rehabilitated his past businesses. In 2011, the governor declared a financial emergency in Flint and, controversially, appointed an unelected emergency manager, Michael Brown, to run the city. Brown's power superseded that of the elected city mayor and city council.
Once in place as emergency manager, Brown, who was Flint’s former interim mayor, swiftly took on the Snyder administration’s water-switch plan as a cost-cutting measure. In February 2012, Brown wrote in the Flint Deficit Elimination Plan that the city was considering utilizing its Flint River as a short-term alternative to purchasing water from Detroit.
Local Detroit officials and water activists saw a more sinister motivation at play, accusing Snyder of trying to break up DWSD in order to regionalize, and privatize, Michigan’s water supply.
“Water was the cash cow,” Meeko Williams, political director for Detroit Water Brigade, told VICE, adding that Snyder was “heavily involved in shutting down DWSD and privatizing the system.”
Brown’s suggestion to use the Flint River came less than a year after a 2011 engineering study commissioned by Flint city officials determined its outdated water treatment plant was woefully incapable of safely treating Flint River water. (Brown didn’t respond to VICE’s request for comment, or to the revelation that he had been interviewed by the FBI in 2016.) The report advised that $61 million in upgrades would be needed to meet that goal; it therefore suggested that Flint’s cheapest water option was leaving DWSD for a new, permanent water pipeline called the Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA) being proposed by Flint and Genesee County officials.
But that latter proposal wasn't free of flaws either. Genesee County, which Flint is part of, was the majority owner of the proposed KWA; oddly, the county’s elected drain commissioner, Jeff Wright, doubled as KWA CEO. Wright had a checkered past: In 2005, he was accused of laundering funds during his 2000 drain commissioner campaign; he ultimately wasn’t charged and denied the allegations, but the FBI did seize his campaign records. Years later, Wright became an FBI informant.
Wright told VICE there was “no conflict of interest” in his dual roles. He added that KWA is a “public authority, not a for-profit water authority.”
The 2011 study advising Flint to join the KWA, and pointing out the plethora of Flint water plant upgrades needed to treat Flint River water, was a formality, according to Bob Bowcock, a water treatment and testing engineer who partners with Erin Brockovich on environmental projects.
“The analysis was done to bolster the agreement to join the pipeline project…period,” he told VICE. He added most engineering reports are mostly “rubber stamp validations for their clients' desires.”
In December 2012, another Flint River red flag was raised. After consulting with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ), Ed Kurtz, the second Flint emergency manager appointed by Governor Snyder, rejected the idea of the city using the Flint River as a drinking water source, according to former Flint emergency manager Gerald Ambrose’s deposition testimony. Despite the 2011 memo laying out the Flint water plant’s inadequacies—and Kurtz rejecting the use of the river a year later—the idea wouldn’t die.
Jeff Wright, along with other Genesee County and Flint officials, pitched Flint on joining the KWA pipeline as financial relief for Flint residents, who were paying high DWSD water rates. Unlike DWSD’s pipeline, which brought Flint already-treated water from Lake Huron, KWA would deliver raw water to Flint, leaving it to the city’s outdated water plant to treat the water.
But saving Flint money didn’t seem to be the sole reason officials pushed the city to break up with DWSD.
Talk of the KWA opening up the mid-Michigan region to the “blue economy” had begun—in the form of promises of jobs that could be created due to businesses’ demand for the raw water KWA would provide. DTE Energy in Michigan expressed wanting as much as 3 million gallons daily (MGD) from the pipeline. Governor Snyder’s natural gas push across Michigan also led to speculation that KWA water would be used for more fracking.
While KWA was pushed as Flint’s best option, another possibility was that Flint could save money by blending DWSD water, or KWA water, with its own Flint River water.
At the end of 2012, Governor Snyder’s treasury department commissioned another Flint water study to compare the costs of each option. The results, released in February 2013, concluded that Flint’s cheapest option was remaining with the DWSD. The study concluded that KWA had underestimated its costs by $100 million.
In March 2013, more than a year before the Flint River switch, Stephen Busch, a supervisor with MDEQ’s drinking water division, emailed other environmental officials in preparation for a call about Flint’s water options with state treasurer Dillon, Busch, and MDEQ director Dan Wyant. Busch warned that continuous use of the Flint River would pose “an increased microbial risk to public health” along with an “increased risk of disinfection by-product (carcinogen)” to Flint residents.
In the investigative subpoena interview between treasurer Dillon and special prosecutor Flood obtained by VICE, Dillon didn’t deny that Busch repeated his email’s warnings on the call they had the same day. Soon after the call, a source familiar with the details of the Flint water criminal investigation told VICE that Dillon and MDEQ director Dan Wyant—whom, VICE learned, prosecutors interviewed—briefed Governor Snyder in person on Busch’s warning about the hazards of the Flint River.
“That was kind of B.S., wasn’t it…” Flood began, “there was no real counter that would change anyone’s mind?” He concluded even if DWSD had “Moses” presenting the offer, local politicians in Genesee County and Flint were hellbent on moving Flint onto the KWA pipeline.
Dillon, who previously revealed he was “lobbied heavily” by KWA CEO Wright to approve Flint joining KWA, acknowledged to Flood that he shared his suspicion over whether the “cake was already baked” for Flint to leave DWSD and the negotiation process illegitimate: “That’s why I followed up with Dan [MDEQ director Wyant] after, to make certain that the last best offer was rejected [by Flint] in good faith because that was a condition…for them to be able to go to KWA.”
Despite DWSD’s cheaper offer to Flint, the city rejected it, and Dillon signed off on Flint switching to the KWA pipeline, which Snyder supported. On his KWA decision, Dillon told VICE, “I was against [Flint] taking any financial risk on the project.”
Wright, and the engineering firms that received pipeline contracts, seem to have personally benefited from the deal: An analysis of Wright’s 2016 drain commissioner campaign by the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan found that 70 percent of his donations came from “political action committees and employees of companies doing business directly with the KWA or working on the pipeline in some capacity.” Wright told the ACLU, “Construction contracts for my office are competitively bid, with the lowest qualified bidder awarded each contract,” adding that his donations are similar to other county officials and the claim that the KWA was a vehicle to increase his campaign donations was “not valid.”
Despite Wright’s claims of KWA construction contracts being above board, documents obtained by VICE reveal former prosecutors proposed investigating the KWA, including its construction contracts and the pipeline’s land purchases. These prosecutors viewed the KWA investigation as an overall priority that could lead to criminal charges.
Three months after Dillon signed off on Flint’s switch to KWA, Kurtz authorized using the Flint River as the city’s temporary water source “for approximately two years” until KWA pipeline construction was completed. Despite this, Kurtz told Congressional investigators he “never made a decision to use Flint River water.” He also said his role was “strictly finance” and “did not include ensuring safe drinking water.”
Eight days before the 2014 water switch, Mike Glasgow, Flint’s laboratory and water quality supervisor, wrote to MDEQ, “If water is distributed from this plant in the next couple weeks, it will be against my direction.” He added that managers “seem to have their own agenda.”
Glasgow’s warnings didn’t matter. The switch was made on April 25, 2014.
Proper corrosion control chemicals weren’t added into the Flint River supply at the time of the switch, a step that could have prevented lead in the aging pipes from dislodging into the water traveling into people’s homes. What's more, at the time of the water switch, Flint’s water plant didn’t even have the proper equipment to add the corrosion control chemicals.
Glasgow “did everything he could to stop” the switch “because he knew on a number of levels that [the Flint water plant was] not yet ready for such a change,” Glasgow’s attorney, Robert Harrison, told VICE. “He was ignored repeatedly.”
Chlorine levels added to the water supply were also inconsistent—high in some parts of the city, and too low in other parts. This allowed the deadly waterborne bacteria Legionella to develop. The combination of heavy metals including lead, Legionella, cancer-causing contaminants (called total trihalomethanes, or TTHMs), and other elements found in the city water led to a disruptive health crisis. By October 2014, residents had been receiving discolored and odorous water for months. They developed rashes and started losing hair.
Busch, whose warning about the hazards of the Flint River were presented to Snyder a year before the water switch, prepared a post-switch memo that October. The memo was sent to Snyder, chief of staff Muchmore, several other figures in Snyder’s office, and MDEQ director Dan Wyant. Among other potential causes, Busch’s memo cited the dangers of a waterborne disease outbreak (i.e., Legionella) as the potential reason for Flint’s need to have boil-water advisories the previous two months.
Although Legionella wasn’t explicitly included in the memo, emails between state environmental and health officials around this time showed it became a serious topic of concern soon after Busch’s memo.
Legionella is “one of only five regulated microorganisms” in the Safe Drinking Water Act, water expert Bob Bowcock explained to VICE, which is why, he said, Legionella “absolutely” should have been on Busch’s radar when he briefed Snyder. Busch didn’t respond to VICE’s request for comment.
Despite Busch’s October 2014 memo to the governor, and the warning Snyder received a year before the water switch, the governor, weeks before his November 2014 reelection, did not act to switch Flint back to Detroit’s water system.
Busch’s memo mentioned an environmental agreement—or an Administrative Consent Order (ACO)—that Flint entered into with the state of Michigan just one month before the water switch.
Essentially, the agreement allowed Flint, by then a nearly bankrupt city with a maxed-out debt limit, an exemption to borrow tens of millions of dollars to fund the environmental cleanup of a local lime sludge lagoon. But hidden within the agreement were provisions for something completely unrelated: Flint could join the KWA pipeline by borrowing more money. Or, as prosecutors plainly said in warrant requests, the ACO was a “sham.”
Felony false pretense charges were filed in 2016 by former Michigan attorney general Bill Schuette against two of Snyder’s Flint emergency managers and two other Flint officials. The lime sludge lagoon “became the vehicle to get a state waiver for the [KWA] bonds,” an announcement with the charges stated.
Inexplicably, the allegedly fraudulent ACO also mandated that Flint temporarily use the Flint River as its drinking water source while the KWA pipeline was under construction. But by the time of the water switch in April 2014, only $8 million of an estimated $69 million in needed upgrades to the Flint water plant was spent, according to a civil rights report on the Flint water crisis. This left residents vulnerable to more corrosive river water instead of the Lake Huron water they had been receiving from Detroit.
Through Flint water criminal investigation documents obtained by VICE, we learned that as part of the former prosecution team’s KWA investigation, prosecutors called for looking into what role Governor Snyder had in the makings of the KWA deal that ultimately led to Flint’s disastrous decision to temporarily use the Flint River. Prosecutors pushed for calling a substantial list of witnesses, including top KWA officials, state treasury and environmental officials—and a top adviser and strategist to Governor Snyder.
VICE also learned that treasurer Dillon expressed surprise over the ACO that was signed when he was already gone from Snyder’s administration.
"One of my conditions for approval was that Flint wouldn't have debt for this," Dillon told Flood, explaining that KWA CEO Wright had promised him that “Genesee County and the KWA had the financing lined up” and Flint would only be a customer receiving water—not part of the “the financing of the KWA.”
Wright didn’t respond to VICE’s questions on whether he promised Dillon that Flint wouldn’t borrow any money to join KWA.
After the water switch, the KWA bonds hung over the cash-strapped city like a dark cloud. According to a source familiar with the details of the Flint water investigation, if Flint wanted to switch back to Detroit after the Flint River switch, the city would be stuck with its monthly Detroit water bill and still be on the hook for more than $100 million owed to KWA bondholders, which included big banks like JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo.
A person familiar with the details of the Flint water criminal investigation emphasized the importance of Busch including details of the agreement for the KWA pipeline in the Flint water briefing he sent to Snyder in October 2014. It was a “cover my ass” move, the source explained: As residents’ complaints about their discolored, smelly water grew, Busch referenced the ACO in the memo to the governor to remind him that the city was using the Flint River because the agreement for the KWA bonds required it.
Busch didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment from VICE.
Three years later, Michigan's new attorney general, Dana Nessel, dropped felony charges related to the alleged KWA bond fraud against Flint emergency managers Darnell Earley and Gerald Ambrose (along with charges against five other high-profile state defendants). In a March 2019 interview, Nessel said that after three years of the Flint water investigation, “I didn’t see any charges at all that had been filed in regard to that.”
Her claim is curious considering former attorney general Bill Schuette charged two Flint emergency managers and two other Flint officials with felonies for their role in the KWA bond deal in 2016.
Beyond the KWA charges being dismissed, other potential financial charges were prematurely stifled, according to Andy Arena, the former chief Flint water criminal investigator. Arena (who was actively investigating the KWA bond deal according to sources close to the Flint probe) told Detroit News that “pretty significant” criminal fraud charges were six months away before he was fired by AG Nessel in 2019. He also said the new prosecution team, led by Michigan Solicitor General Fadwa Hammoud (who replaced Flood), never brought him in for a debriefing of his team’s three years of investigative work.
In response to VICE’s questions, a spokesperson for the current Flint water criminal investigation told VICE that Nessel is not involved with the criminal side of the investigation, citing a wall between the criminal investigation and the Flint water civil suits. Solicitor General Hammoud didn’t respond to VICE’s request for comment.
A source familiar with the details of the Flint criminal investigation said to follow the money to find out why the KWA charges were dismissed.
“It would cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars,” the source told VICE, suggesting any criminal proceedings on the KWA bond deal would risk angry bondholders demanding their money back. If that occurred, ultimately, the state of Michigan, which signed off on the allegedly fraudulent ACO that led to Flint joining the KWA, would be on the hook.
By the time Snyder received Busch’s October 2014 memo about the potential for a dangerous bacteria to be in the water, Flint residents had already been poisoned for six months.
“The source of the outbreak may be the Flint municipal water,” state epidemiologist Shannon Johnson wrote in an email to colleagues on October 13, 2014. This was the same day General Motors announced it would discontinue using the Flint River because high levels of chloride in the river water corroded its parts. A state health spokesperson told VICE that Johnson couldn’t answer questions “due to the ongoing criminal investigation.”
The next day, Valerie Brader, an environmental advisor and attorney for Snyder, emailed a group of top Snyder administration officials. She laid it all out: Flint’s River teemed with E. coli and high levels of TTHMs. She called for the city to be fully or partially reconnected to Detroit—“urgently.”
Snyder’s chief legal counsel, Michael Gadola, who grew up in Flint and whose mother still lived there, quickly responded, horrified: “The notion that I would be getting my drinking water from the Flint River is downright scary.”
During their investigative subpoena interview in October 2016, Muchmore acknowledged to Flood that Brader and Gadola weren’t the only figures in the Snyder administration sounding the alarm on using the Flint River at that point.
“It wasn't restricted to one person; let's put it that way,” Muchmore said, according to the transcript.
In response to questions from VICE, Muchmore said he was unable to respond, “as much as I would like.” Neither Flood nor Mike Gadola responded to VICE’s requests for comment.
After receiving Brader’s email, Muchmore referred her to Snyder’s third Flint emergency manager, Darnell Earley, and Rich Baird, the governor’s top adviser, who held the opaque title of “transformation manager.” On a call with Brader and Baird, Earley said it would be too costly to disconnect the city from the Flint River and switch back to DWSD, Brader later publicly testified. It seems possible that he was referring to more than $100 million in KWA bonds Flint would still be on the hook for while also having to pay Detroit.
When Flood asked about the call during their investigative subpoena interview, Baird said he wasn’t really involved and was “checked out” and “multitasking.”
But, VICE learned, Baird was involved in the call. A source familiar with the criminal investigation revealed that beyond her public testimony, Brader was brought in for a confidential investigative subpoena interview with Flood. During it, she broke down in tears, revealing that Baird was not only involved in the call—he made demands. Afterward, Baird warned her to never again send an email like the water warning again, Brader testified. According to a source familiar with the criminal investigation, neither Baird, nor other top Snyder officials, followed up with Brader about her Flint water concerns.
Baird did not respond to multiple requests for comment from VICE on Brader’s claim and many other questions. Brader also declined to comment, citing the ongoing criminal investigation. Darnell Earley didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.
A source familiar with the Flint criminal investigation, who’s spoken with Brader, told VICE “she regrets not doing more. It haunts her at night, weighs on her conscience.”
Baird’s menacing nature seemed to not be an exception but the rule for how he operated as Snyder’s right hand in government. In 2014, Baird left a hostile voicemail threatening to sue a local AFL-CIO union leader who wrote a critical op-ed about him; he also threatened to sue then-state senator Gretchen Whitmer for calling him a “crook” on television. (Whitmer is now governor of Michigan.) In 2018, Baird lashed out at a Flint activist, telling him to “crawl back into whatever hole of illusion you reside in.”
“He’s a fixer, he’s an old-fashioned fixer,” a source familiar with the criminal investigation told VICE. Baird’s M.O. was “by any means possible: threaten, coerce, whatever, to fix these things for Snyder.”
Baird’s “fixing” for Snyder expanded as the water crisis unfolded, allegedly descending into identifying Flint residents who could damage Snyder—and trying to pay them off.
By 2017, Flint resident Adam Murphy had become ill with seizures, memory loss, and double vision. Things grew so bad he could no longer work as a millwright welder. His then-wife Christina developed severe skeletal and muscle pain. Their newborn son Declan’s umbilical cord blood tested positive for lead in 2016 (the CDC cites no safe lead level for children).
Angry and desperate for help, Adam unleashed his rage at a water-crisis town hall in January 2017. A police officer removed him from the event and said she’d connect him with a top state official who could help his family, Christina recalled to VICE. Adam’s outburst received attention in the Flint Journal and the Detroit News.
Weeks later, Baird, an imposing man with broad shoulders and white-grey hair, stood in the Murphys’ living room, bizarrely flanked by former Army National Guard colonel Scott W. Hiipakka, a state trooper, and Sheryl Thompson, an official from the state health department, according to Christina. Baird was there representing Snyder, or as he told them, his “best friend.” He told the Murphys that the Snyder administration would fully pay for a medical treatment for Adam called chelation therapy, which injects agents into the body to bind to heavy metals like lead and extract them.
Christina told VICE that Baird said she’d receive the treatment when she stopped breastfeeding Declan, and told Adam he would be the state’s “pilot program”; if Adam’s chelation proved successful, Baird signaled, it would be made available to the rest of Flint. (Following Murphy’s chelation treatment, his blood-lead levels dropped dramatically; although he still has health problems, his seizures stopped and cognitive functioning improved, according to Christina, who is now his ex-wife).
“You’re going to be the face of Flint,” Baird said to Adam, according to Christina. The catch: The Murphys couldn’t talk to the media about it or tell anyone the state was paying for the treatment. (Baird, Hiipakka, and Thompson didn’t respond to VICE’s requests for comment.)
Adam Murphy didn’t agree to speak for this story, citing legal advice. In recent years, he’s openly talked about his chelation treatment.
The Murphys weren’t the only Flint family Baird allegedly tried to silence, according to sources familiar with the details of the criminal investigation.
Melissa Mays, another Flint resident, said she initially thought her hair loss and increasing fatigue was the result of working too hard. But after she and her sons faced rapidly declining health, she sprung into action.
From speaking up at Flint town halls to organizing protests and lobbying Congress, Mays became an outspoken thorn in the Snyder administration’s side. She was also one of several plaintiffs in a lawsuit that won $97 million from the state toward replacing Flint’s busted lead-service lines.
According to Mays, Baird approached her in May 2018, not-so-subtly trying to pay her off.
“Rick and I are out at the end of the year, so we have nothing to lose,” Mays recalled Baird saying. Baird allegedly said he was so tired of Flint residents’ complaining and lacking appreciation for all Snyder had done for them that he unilaterally, without the governor knowing, decided to end free water-bottle sites throughout Flint.
Mays told VICE she offered Baird to shower in her home as a demonstration of how unsafe the water still was. She also emphasized the need for transparent, non-state or EPA-funded water testing.
Baird’s response wasn’t subtle, according to Mays. “How about I do this: If I come in and replace your interior plumbing, your fixtures, the water heater, and your service line, would that make you happy and would that make you quiet?”
She didn’t flinch: “I just looked at him and said ‘If you do that for everybody,’” she remembered. “He turned beet red.”
If Baird couldn’t convince people to say Flint’s water was safe, “he would buy it, and then if he couldn't buy it, he would threaten,” Mays told VICE.
During Baird’s investigative subpoena interview, Flood asked him about his interactions with Flint resident Keri Webber. One of Webber’s daughters survived the deadly Legionnaires’ disease after the water switch. Her other daughter was found to have alarming levels of lead in her blood; her husband had an eye stroke leaving him partially blind. Webber’s family’s struggles led her to publicly criticize the Snyder administration and lobby Baird and state officials for expanded Medicaid.
Baird acknowledged speaking with Webber, telling Flood he asked the health department to follow up with her. Flood also asked Baird if he knew anything about Webber—who in 2016 said anonymous donors helped her pay for her home’s new water service lines—receiving “cash from the state.”
Baird replied, “I guess I have to answer that.” Flood and Baird’s interview was then moved off the record for three minutes, according to the transcript.
In 2016, Webber told Michigan Radio that state officials were trying to carve out an individual Medicaid expansion deal for her rather than all of Flint—which she said she rejected.
“I told Baird to FUCK OFF,” Webber recalled to VICE via Facebook Messenger, saying she accepted nothing from Baird or the state. She also acknowledged she spoke to prosecutors with the Flint water criminal investigation.
Baird didn’t respond to requests for comment from VICE on Webber’s claim.
Baird’s way of doing things seemed to be consistent whether he was dealing with residents, state officials like Brader, or state epidemiologists. Weeks before Snyder faced a tough November re-election—while also reportedly considering a 2016 presidential run—state epidemiologist Susan Bohm emailed health officials describing a concerning call she had just received from Liane Shekter-Smith, MDEQ’s water division chief. Bohm said Shekter-Smith called her to share that Genesee County’s health department had flagged the growing Legionella outbreak in Flint. She was concerned that an imminent announcement about the Flint River being the source of the outbreak would “certainly inflame the situation.” (Neither Bohm or Shekter-Smith responded to requests for comment.)
Flood pressed Baird on what Snyder and he knew about Flint’s Legionella outbreak, and when. Baird said experts told top state officials that the number of Legionella cases in Flint wasn’t abnormal compared to neighboring counties or parts of the country. When Flood asked which experts told him that, Baird said he couldn’t recall.
Christina Murphy said she simply “didn’t trust him” when he stood in her living room years ago offering her then-husband Adam state-funded medical treatment. “It seemed surreal, it seemed like a movie,” she said. But despite Murphy’s reservations, she believed Baird when he framed Adam’s treatment as a first step to providing it to the rest of Flint.
“We weren’t going to just go ahead with it if they were just going to do Adam and nobody [else],” Christina told VICE. “Why are you just going to do us when there’s a whole city that’s sick?”
Murphy said Baird wasn’t acting independently of the governor, because Baird specified that he would take this issue to “his best friend." Years later, Christina said she thinks Baird’s offer was meant “to cut our [Flint’s] voice off, our loudest voice, and that was Adam.”
“It’s keep-your-mouth-shut money,” a source familiar with Baird’s actions told VICE.
Prior to the water switch, Christina was a vibrant, healthy woman who worked outdoors and volunteered at her children's schools. Today, at 39, she said she’s ravaged by severe muscle pain, bone marrow inflammation, brain lesions, night sweats, seizures, anxiety, PTSD, and bladder issues.
“About six months ago, it got so bad that I was ready to write out a will because I was worried about whether or not I was going to die a few times over the past year,” she said.
After the water switch, her 13-year-old daughter, Skye, has developed significant leg and joint pain. Her 7-year-old daughter, Lilly, received an individualized education plan from her school citing cognitive impairment, a learning disability, and memory loss due to lead poisoning, Christina said. She’s also developed night terrors. Declan, 4, has been diagnosed with a learning delay and has severe leg pains in his sleep.
Christina never got the chelation treatment Baird promised. The health department cut off communication with her shortly after she and Adam divorced. Sheryl Thompson, the state health official who, according to text messages VICE reviewed, oversaw the state’s payment for Adam’s treatment, didn’t respond to requests for comment from VICE.
While emails and texts VICE reviewed confirmed the state paid for Adam’s treatment, Baird played the role of philanthropist. Bruce Stiers, a Flint resident who met with Baird to discuss Flint’s water problems, said Baird claimed he was paying for Adam’s treatment “out of his own personal pocket.”
Baird and the Snyder administration didn’t stop at allegedly silencing Flint residents.
“They didn’t threaten us, they punished us constantly,” said former Flint mayor Karen Weaver, who won the election in 2015 right before the water crisis made national headlines.
The administration repeatedly dangled “a pot of money for different things,” Weaver told VICE. Multiple sources familiar with Snyder and Weaver’s communications, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal, said funding promises included new communications staff and additional police officers. But with the promises came repeated requests for Weaver to publicly declare that Flint’s water was safe. The mayor didn’t comply, pointing out that many homes were still testing high for lead.
After repeated attempts by the Snyder administration to get Mayor Weaver to cooperate proved unsuccessful, the promised funding suddenly became unavailable, sources told VICE.
At one point, Baird told Weaver that Flint’s water was safe and there was no need to continue using a filter, according to these sources. Baird’s claim ran counter to the state’s health and environmental departments’ advisories.
The Snyder administration’s “callous” attempts to get Weaver to assure residents that Flint’s water was safe were all about sweeping the water crisis under the rug, Weaver’s former spokesperson, Candice Mushatt, told VICE. "The EPA, the governor, they all were…they didn’t really care. It was kind of like, 'This is what it is, this is how we’re moving forward and that’s it.'"
“I feel like it happened on Snyder’s watch so he was trying to make it seem like it was cleaned up on his watch,” Mushatt added. “It seemed like that’s what they were desperately trying to do.”
As Weaver denied Snyder the all-clear on lead, Flint residents sought expanded testing for the bacteria that researchers warned could develop from the water filters the state was providing residents. But those pleas fell on deaf ears.
Flint resident Nakiya Wakes, 44, blames Flint's toxic water for two miscarriages she had after the water switch. Both times, she said, she was pregnant with twins.
"They're not even telling the citizens and the residents and anyone else about all the other heavy carcinogens and bacteria that's in the water also," Wakes told VICE.
Weaver was even pressed to say the water in Flint’s schools was safe to drink, according to former city government officials familiar with the administration’s overtures to Weaver. Weaver didn’t, and soon after, the remaining free water-bottle stations Flint residents relied on were prematurely shut down.
When the stations were shuttered, Weaver attempted to reopen them by turning to the $48.8 million rainy-day fund that was allocated to Flint from the state’s 2017-2018 budget. But when Weaver looked, the money was gone. The Snyder administration had been using these funds—meant to be under Flint’s control—to pay for the water stations.
“We were led to believe that [the state was] paying the cost, not money allocated to Flint,” Weaver told VICE.
Tensions between Snyder and Weaver reached a breaking point in April 2018. According to Weaver, in a meeting, Snyder admonished the mayor for a letter she wrote to him reminding him of the funding promises he had made for Flint water relief.
“Your first mistake was sending me that letter,” Weaver recalled an angry Snyder telling her. The meeting ended abruptly after Snyder told Weaver that it was time for Flint residents to “get over it” and move on.
Neither Snyder nor his attorneys responded to multiple requests for comment from VICE on Weaver’s allegations.
Snyder cut off communication with Weaver after the abrupt meeting, dispatching his right-hand man to deal with her, according to Mushatt. In several meetings between the two, Baird refused Weaver’s request to reopen the free water pods for Flint residents, Mushatt said.
On top of the Snyder administration having allegedly raided Flint’s rainy-day fund, financial information released in July 2019 examining where $389.6 million of state funds allocated for Flint water relief went revealed that only $75 million went directly to Flint. The remaining $314 million went to law firms, state agencies, different Genesee County departments, hospitals, banks, and a slew of other destinations unrelated to Flint water relief, according to a review of the expenditures by VICE, based on original reporting by ABC 12 in Flint.
Glaringly, more than $20 million was allocated to Uptown Reinvestment Corporation, Inc., a real estate company that has bought up a considerable amount of property in downtown Flint. The company has also received funding from the Mott Foundation, a major philanthropic organization with deep ties to the city’s government and culture. Another $720,000 went to the Mott-funded Genesee County Chamber of Commerce. Stunningly, other expenditures totaling more than $160 million were labeled as “various,” “blank,” “N/A,” “G,” or “will add info in subsequent reports.
A spokesperson for Uptown said in a statement, that the $20 million, provided from a statewide pool of resources went toward the renovation of historic buildings, "the redevelopment of a former YWCA into a 92-unit apartment and townhouse complex, and a six-unit retail hub for small businesses. It’s important to note that although these funds were included in the state’s water crisis expenditures, they are funds that URC would have received anyway through the state of Michigan’s community revitalization program. These projects along with others are fueling the revitalization of Flint."
In response to the $20 million to Uptown Reinvestment, a Mott Foundation spokesperson told VICE that Snyder had sought Mott CEO Ridgway White’s advice on “numerous ways to support the city.” White doesn’t recall “suggesting funds should be directed to any specific entities.”
In 2018, our independent reporting uncovered evidence that Snyder’s environmental department manipulated water testing and data in Flint from 2016 through 2018—and used the data to declare Flint’s water “restored” before shutting down free water stations in the city.
Through canvassing hundreds of Flint homes, VICE discovered that state environmental officials, who were previously caught manipulating water testing, distorted lead data in Flint in at least 35 homes that were part of the state’s official testing group. MDEQ officials, and volunteers it trained, flushed residents’ water lines—in some cases for five to 10 minutes—right before collecting samples. In many cases, MDEQ officials, or their volunteers, directed residents to flush right before taking their own water lead samples.
Doing this was in violation of the federal Lead and Copper Rule (LCR), which mandates water be stagnant for a minimum of six hours and for samples to be taken as soon as the tap is turned on. In 2018, the EPA confirmed that flushing the water before testing is prohibited; the agency also said state officials weren’t supposed to be going into residents’ homes to collect lead and copper water samples being used for LCR compliance.
“Residents collect the compliance samples,” a spokesperson said. Multiple sources close to Weaver told VICE that when the mayor and her health adviser Pamela Pugh would ask MDEQ officials about its water lead testing procedures, they were never provided specific answers. “You just have to trust us,” Weaver’s former spokesperson Mushatt said was the sum of MDEQ’s explanations.
MDEQ denied the allegations to us in 2018, claiming there were various forms of testing conducted by different agencies in Flint, and suggesting that there might be "some confusion" among residents. But our reporting confirmed these residents were on the official state water lead testing program, called the state sentinel study, which MDEQ oversaw and which only tested for lead and copper.
Environmental advocate Erin Brockovich called the testing strategies a “crime” and suggested that the Snyder administration’s “cheating” should result in an invalidation of all of the data—and new independent testing.
AG Nessel, whose office was made aware of our findings on the water testing more than a year ago, has not charged any officials involved. A spokesperson for the criminal investigation told VICE that other prosecutors, not Nessel, are running the Flint water criminal investigation.
Michigan’s current governor, Gretchen Whitmer, has publicly acknowledged the testing was done improperly but hasn’t reopened Flint’s free water stations that she had promised to reinstate in 2018 as governor-elect. People familiar with discussions that took place between Whitmer and Weaver told VICE that Whitmer said she couldn’t get additional funding from the Republican-controlled state legislature to keep Flint water relief help centers open later, or to fix corroded plumbing inside Flint homes, because lawmakers had “Flint fatigue.”
Whitmer didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment from VICE. According to reports, Democratic presidential frontrunner Joe Biden is currently considering her as a potential vice-presidential running mate.
Flint’s current mayor, Sheldon Neeley, said the “water is testing better” these days, suggesting Flint residents can eventually switch away from bottled water back to tap water. He also announced his desire to move Flint off of Detroit’s water onto the KWA pipeline. In 2012, Neeley said it was a “myth” that Flint River water was unsafe to drink. As a councilman in 2013, Neeley advocated joining KWA.
“Then-Councilman Neeley’s discussion in 2012 of the quality of the Flint River water IS COMPLETELY IRRELEVANT,” his spokesperson wrote to VICE, adding that the lack of corrosion-control chemicals in the water is what poisoned Flint—not the Flint River. That’s partially correct; however, as reported throughout this piece, there were several expert warnings about the hazards of the Flint River provided to Snyder before the water switch. Also, the river’s long history of pollution was well known among residents.
Despite state and city officials citing better testing results of Flint’s water, VICE’s reporting indicates there still may be active problems with the city's water. Soon after Snyder declared Flint’s water “restored” in 2018, VICE met a one-year-old baby whose family had just moved from a city apartment to a house. She had “perfect skin,” Jasmine Lee, the baby’s mother, told VICE. But a few weeks after moving in, and bathing her infant, white sores developed on her arms, legs, and ears, causing her to scratch nonstop; Lee said she suspects it's their water.
“This water is horrible,” Lee said. “At the end of the day we gotta bathe in it still, no matter what.”
Today, there are still residents experiencing symptoms.
Tony Palladeno, a lifelong Flint resident, now splits time between Flint and a house two hours north. “I could hardly breathe,” he told VICE about showering in Flint recently. His eyes burn, his hair falls out, and he gets rashes after using the city water. His 13-year-old granddaughter is also suffering: “There’s a clump of hair down in the tub,” he said of her experience. When he goes to his house up north and showers, his symptoms disappear.
“We got a pistol in our mouth everyday—it’s called tap water,” Palladeno said.
During his investigative subpoena interview with Flood, Baird suggested the people of Flint blame the water far too much.
“They blame the water for everything from bunions to sore throats to a pimple on your butt, OK?” he said. Then he supposed, “I probably shouldn’t have said that on the record.”
This April, the Flint water crisis enters its sixth year. The clock for justice is also ticking; that same month, the Michigan statute of limitations runs out for new felony misconduct-in-office charges related to the water crisis to be filed. In 2019, two state lawmakers proposed legislation that would extend the statute of limitations from six years to 10 years.
“I don’t want time to be the reason people are not brought to justice,” state senator Jim Ananich, a co-sponsor for the bill, said when the extension was proposed in August 2019. “It’s a pretty important issue. It’s not a complicated bill. I just thought, let’s give them the time they need.”
To date, Snyder, Baird, chief of staff Dennis Muchmore, treasurer Andy Dillon, MDEQ director Wyant, emergency managers Mike Brown and Ed Kurtz, KWA CEO Jeff Wright, and MDHHS’s Sheryl Thompson have not been charged with crimes related to the Flint water crisis. Stephen Busch, Liane Shekter-Smith, and Mike Glasgow were charged with felonies but took plea deals that led to felony charges being dismissed. Overall, 15 state and city officials were charged by the previous Flint water prosecution team led by Flood.
In June 2019, Nessel dropped charges against the eight remaining defendants, including the two highest-level Snyder officials, state health department director Nick Lyon and the state’s chief medical officer, Eden Wells.
Upon dropping the charges, state Solicitor General Hammoud cited “grave concerns” about Flood and his team’s “investigative approach and legal theories.” The decision left many Flint residents angry; Flood’s team had successfully convinced two judges to bind Lyon and Wells to involuntary manslaughter charges in front of a jury following year-long pre-trials. (They were facing the charges for allegedly failing to inform Flint residents of the Legionella outbreak early enough.)
Pre-trial Judge David Goggins called Lyon “corrupt.” In September 2019, PBS reported that, according to Wayne State University engineer Shawn McElmurry, whom the state commissioned to research the source of Flint’s Legionella outbreak, when he warned Lyon that the state needed to increase state monitoring of the deadly disease, Lyon replied, “They’ll have to die of something.” Lyon denied saying such a thing. Nessel told Flint residents that dropping the charges didn’t mean they couldn’t be refiled later. A spokesperson for the Flint water criminal investigation told VICE, “It would be unfair to distract our team of prosecutors and investigators from their primary mission to pursue justice for the people of Flint while they also work to minimize the spread of COVID-19. The prosecution team continues to press forward despite the current challenges posed by this pandemic.”
In early April, a federal judge ruled that Snyder would face a civil lawsuit from a Flint victim. A senior Democratic aide to the congressional oversight committee told VICE that before Rep. Elijah Cummings’ death, he wrote to Snyder requesting that he “fully comply with the Committee’s previous request” for more documents. The aide said the committee would continue to pursue the Flint investigation.
On whether accountability, or justice, will ever come for the poisoned people of Flint, Christina Murphy responded, void of hope.
"They’re just continuing to murder us and get away with it," she said, "and I don’t know when it’s gonna stop."
CORRECTION: Harvey Hollins said Snyder was told about the water contamination by December 2015 when he testified in court during MDHHS director Nick Lyon's pre-trial, not in testimony to Congress. Additionally, Solicitor General Hammoud did not respond to VICE for comment. A spokesperson for the criminal investigation said that other prosecutors, not current Attorney General Dana Nessel, were running the Flint water criminal investigation.