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Flint River Watergate

Jack Lessenberry

Yesterday, while we were waiting to see who would face criminal charges in the Flint water crisis, I asked a friend if he thought that would be a real, no-holds-barred investigation.

“That depends on whether the indictments stop at Hunt, Liddy and the Cubans,” he said.

If you are a little rusty on your Watergate history, those were the collection of characters who were originally arrested for trying to break in and bug Democratic National Headquarters in that long-ago world of 1972.

The White House desperately tried to get the investigation to not go any higher, and as the world now knows, they were unsuccessful.

... now we have a different kind of crisis, one in which an entire city's water supply was poisoned.

Well, now we have a different kind of crisis, one in which an entire city’s water supply was poisoned, one in which, unlike Watergate, people actually died.

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette announced charges against two state Department of Environmental Quality employees and the man who was supervisor of the Flint Water Treatment plant when the water supply was switched to the Flint River and authorities failed to add corrosion control chemicals.

I’m not mentioning these men’s names here, partly since – let’s face it – they’ve already have been essentially convicted in the press, even when some reporter remembers to add “innocent until proven guilty” to the stories detailing the charges, which include both misdemeanors and one to three felonies in every case. But there seems to be no thought of limiting the investigation.

The attorney general said specifically, “these charges are only the beginning. There will be more to come,” and later said, “each and every person who (broke) the law will be held responsible … no one is above the law.”

Officials also openly invited anyone with further knowledge of what happened to come forward, more than hinting they’d be open to plea bargaining.

"This is the biggest case in the history of Michigan." - FBI agent Andy Arena

What took me by surprise was the comment of former FBI agent Andy Arena, who said, “This is the biggest case in the history of Michigan,” far bigger than the Kwame Kilpatrick mess, on which he also worked, and pointedly added: “Nobody is off limits.”

Naturally, everyone wondered if that meant the governor will eventually be charged. Based on everything I’ve seen, that still seems unlikely. Looked at against the prism of presidential scandals, this still seems far more like Iran-Contra, in which unsupervised appointees ran amok while a disengaged President Reagan failed to pay attention.

We’ve seen no evidence of a centrally directed criminal conspiracy to obstruct justice, which is what Richard Nixon did in Watergate. Still, when one reads the emails from Snyder’s staff, it is very hard to believe he didn’t know more, earlier than he says he did.

For now the state has been paying the legal bills of the two MDEQ workers who were charged Wednesday, but the governor said later that afternoon that he thought their department director “would be revisiting the appropriateness of that.”

Regardless of how you feel about that, it seems more than a bit hypocritical for a governor to say that who is already charging taxpayers at least $1.2 million to pay for his own potential legal and criminal defense in this case.

We now know this: the story we could easily call "Flint River Watergate" will go on for months -- quite possibly, years.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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