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Michigan taxpayers will foot the bill for the Governor's lawyers in the Flint water lawsuits

Mar 11, 2016

If you’ve somehow missed the latest outrage in the Flint water crisis, here it is. Taxpayers are about to pay $1.2 million dollars for legal fees to personally protect Governor Rick Snyder from civil or criminal prosecution over his role in the poisoning of the city.

Meanwhile, Attorney General Bill Schuette wants us to cough up $1.5 million to cover the cost of an outside attorney named Todd Flood, a contributor to Schuette’s campaigns, who he is hiring to investigate Flint’s public health disaster.

If it sounds like an utter outrage, that’s because it is. Schuette’s investigation should be handled by the state attorney general’s office, out of their budget.

If Snyder, a multimillionaire in his own right, feels the need for additional counsel to protect himself from liability, he should do what you or I would have to do – go hire a lawyer at his own expense. I’m not an attorney, but I do know something about the state attorney general’s office, because I spent several years working with Frank Kelley on his biography.

Kelley served as Michigan’s attorney general for 37 years. He saw it as his job to represent the entire state and all its officials, and he did so in a way that effectively discouraged other departments from setting up their own legal fiefdoms. Kelley recognized that the governor, say, needed confidential legal advice. So he set up a system where any governor had an assistant attorney general who would report to and work with only that governor.

That person remained on Kelley’s payroll, but in effect, was on the governor’s staff. That arrangement worked well all the time Kelley was in office, though most of his governors were Republicans and he was a Democrat.

But it fell apart after he left, perhaps because his successors all have been more interested in running for governor than in being Michigan’s attorney general.

Now, we are being asked to approve these outrageous fees. Originally, both Schuette and Snyder sought to sneak their outside counsel fees under the radar by setting them just a tiny bit lower than the threshold needed for approval by the state administrative board.

But it turned out the lawyers demanded more money than that. If the state administrative board approves, we taxpayers will pay $800,000 to a criminal defense attorney named Brian Lennon and his firm.  Ari Adler, the governor’s new top spokesman, insisted

“We do not believe there will be a need for criminal defense because the governor and his administration have not committed any crimes.”

Well, that’s good to know.

So then why should we pay for it? Snyder’s also hiring Eugene Driker, a notable Democrat, to defend him against civil prosecution. Driker’s fee was set highest of all -- $540 an hour. The state administrative board should deny these requests when it meets Tuesday, but it won’t. Three of the seven members are Snyder, Schuette and Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, plus the secretary of state and three appointees.

In a perfect world, someone, perhaps Secretary of State Ruth Johnson, would stand up for the taxpayers and tell Snyder to hire his own lawyers and Schuette to make do out of existing resources. Yes, that makes so much common sense it’ll never happen.

But hey – a boy can dream.

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.