Six state employees charged in alleged Flint lead-water coverup

Michigan's attorney general announced several felony charges on Friday in connection with the Flint water crisis, marking the latest twist in the state's criminal probe.

by Kayla Ruble
Jul 29 2016, 6:25pm

Photo by Tom Williams/AP

Six Michigan state employees were charged Friday with covering up the toxic leadcontamination of Flint's water supply, the latest twist in a criminal probe that could go all the way to the governor's office.

Attorney General Bill Schuette announced charges against three people from the state's Department of Health and Human Services and three staff members at the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. All the charges related to covering up information that indicated high levels of lead in Flint's drinking water sparked by the city's switch from Detroit's system to the Flint River in April 2014.

"Their offenses vary, but there's an overall theme and repeated pattern, each of these individuals attempted to bury or cover up or downplay or hide information that contradicted their own story," Schuette said during press conference on Friday, referring to the initial narrative pushed by officials that Flint's drinking water was safe, when it was not.

"In essence these individuals concealed the truth. They were criminally wrong to do so," he continued.

The state health department employees charged were Nancy Peeler, Corinne Miller, and Robert Scott. Schuette accused the trio of burying a report that highlighted the lead issue, producing their own "bogus" report, and advising others not to take action in regards to the lead contamination when it should have been required. They face two felony charges of misconduct in office and conspiracy, and a misdemeanor charge for willful neglect of duty.

Schuette also charged Liane Shekter Smith, Adam Rosenthal, and Patricia Cook at the state environmental regulator. He said they misled superiors regarding water plant certification and preparedness, as well as lead and copper rule compliance. Their charges range from felonies for misconduct in office, conspiracy, and tampering with evidence, as well as misdemeanors for willful neglect of duty.

Flint switched water sources to the Flint River in April 2014 as part of a cost-cutting measure under state oversight. Residents almost immediately began to complain about brown, foul-smelling water and health issues. City and state officials stressed that the water was safe, but eventually water quality violations started coming in. By September 2015 a report from a local hospital indicated blood-lead levels in the city's children had risen since the water switch.

Investigations later revealed that mistakes made during the water treatment process sent highly corrosive water through the city's water system, leaching lead from the pipes as water made its way to people's homes and out of their faucets. An estimated 8,000 children could have been exposed to lead, which can cause severe developmental issues.

Friday's charges will be challenging to prosecute, according to Wayne State University law professor Peter J. Henning. While the counts handed down today are in a sense alleging a cover-up, he explained, the charges have more to do with poor job performance.

"They're essentially saying they did a really bad job by not properly dealing with what was going on with the Flint water," Henning said.

Evidence gleaned from emails has been the main driver behind charges so far, but as Henning explained, live witness testimony will be essential in both validating or disproving the sentiments in them.

These are just the latest indictments connected to the water crisis and covering up information that indicated toxic levels of lead long before officials informed the public. A total of nine people have now been charged, including one Flint city employee and two other Department of Environmental Quality staffers.

When Schuette announced this week that he was handing down more criminal charges, speculation loomed over whether he would seek to indict higher-level officials or politicians. Today's indictments reached the highest level of state government to date, but still targeted mid-level state employees and their supervisors.

Schuette has been vocal in his attempt to hold those at fault accountable, with the investigation putting him at the center of the crisis at a time when he is seen as a Republican front-runner to succeed current Governor Rick Snyder, also a Republican, for Michigan's top office in 2018. Critics have questioned his impartiality and whether he would be willing to take down individuals connected to the governor's administration.

Despite these concerns, there is still time for more and higher level charges. The current approach of rolling out incremental charges is the classic playbook for cases of organizational misconduct or failure within an organization, Henning said.

"You start at the bottom and work your way up. The higher up people are, the less you'll find their fingerprints on the decisions," he said. "If you can get cooperation from a witness to say 'they told me this' or 'she told me this at a meeting.' Because this is government. What happens all day? Meetings."

On Friday, Schuette echoed previous statements claiming that more charges would come and more individuals would be held accountable. After more than 200 interviews conducted so far during the investigation, Schuette said his team was "a long way from done."

"Some may wish and some may worry that the story of Flint will be slowly absorbed by world events, the 24-hour news cycle and the short attention span of tweets and posts," he said. "Nope. Not on our watch. That will not happen."