Seven years after disastrous decision-making by state-installed managers poisoned Flint’s drinking water, multi-millionaire former governor Rick Snyder faces two misdemeanor criminal charges for his role in the fiasco.
The former governor was arraigned Thursday in Genesee County, where he pleaded not guilty to the two charges of willful neglect of duty.
If convicted, Snyder could face up to one year in jail and a $1,000 fine.
The charges are unheard-of: No governor or former governor in Michigan’s 184-year history had been charged with crimes related to their time in that office.
It’s a major move, and one that could bring an end to years of investigations, lawsuits, and accusations stemming from a crisis that upended lives and destroyed residents’ trust in government.
What are the charges?
Snyder and eight other former officials involved in the Flint water crisis were charged and arraigned this week:
- Former state health director Nick Lyon was charged with nine felony counts of involuntary manslaughter and one count of willful neglect of duty. He pleaded not guilty to all charges.
- Dr. Eden Wells was charged with nine felony counts of involuntary manslaughter, a misdemeanor count of willful neglect of duty, and two felony counts of misconduct in office.
- Current state health department employee Nancy Peeler was charged with two felony counts of misconduct in office and one misdemeanor count willful neglect of duty.
- Former Flint emergency manager Gerald Ambrose was arraigned on four felony counts of misconduct in office.
- Former Flint emergency manager Darnell Earley has been arraigned on three felony counts of misconduct in office.
- Howard Croft, former Director of Public Works in Flint, was charged with two misdemeanor counts of willful neglect of duty.
- Jarrod Agen, who worked as Snyder's communications director and later chief of staff, was charged with perjury, a 15-year felony.
- Rich Baird, Snyder’s point man in Flint throughout the crisis, was charged with four felonies: misconduct in office, perjury, obstruction of justice, and extortion. If convicted, Baird faces up to 20 years in prison for the extortion charge alone. He pleaded not guilty on all counts.
Lyon, Wells, Earley, Ambrose, Peeler, and ten other officials previously faced charges that were filed by former Attorney General Bill Schuette’s office. Pending charges from those indictments were dropped in 2019, after Nessel took office and announced the investigation would restart.
Michigan Solicitor General Fadwa Hammoud and Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy led the grand jury investigation that produced the most recent charges.
“This case has nothing to do with partisanship,” Worthy said Thursday. “It has to do with human decency, resurrecting the complete abandonment of the people of Flint, and finally, finally holding people accountable for the alleged, unspeakable atrocities that occurred in Flint all these years ago.”
Hammound clarified that although charges have been filed, the investigation remains ongoing.
Regarding the charges against Snyder, Hammoud said, “Based on the evidence, we charged because we believe that his willful neglect of duty amounted to a crime.”
She added, “We conducted a full and thorough investigation and followed the evidence in this case.”
For their part, Snyder’s attorneys called the move a "politically motivated smear campaign," adding that the Office of Special Council needs a "scapegoat" after "wasting five years and tens of millions of taxpayer dollars on a fruitless investigation," and that Snyder is a target in a political escapade.
How did we get here?
The state takeover of Flint’s finances in 2011 set the stage for the disaster that was to come. In June of 2013, emergency manager Ed Kurtz hired an engineering company to plan for switching the city’s municipal water source over to the Flint River. Kurtz was the third emergency manager to run Flint’s finances, and the switch was intended to be a cost-saving move.
In April 2014, Flint made the switch. Soon residents complained about smelly, brown water. A General Motors plant had to pay to bring in semi-trucks of water because Flint’s water was corroding its engine parts.
City officials insisted, repeatedly, that the water was safe. Emergency manager Jerry Ambrose (Flint’s fourth state-appointed boss) called residents’ complaints a “perception issue,” and refused to reconnect to Detroit water, saying Flint didn’t have the money anyway.
In July 2015, the ACLU published a draft report from the U.S. EPA that showed astronomical lead levels in some drinking water samples. Still, the public was not warned about a broad health risk. In September 2015, local public health officials started ringing alarm bells. That’s when Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha released findings that showed high levels of lead in children’s blood, and Flint’s medical community urged the city to stop using Flint River water.
Finally, in October 2015, government officials took the warnings seriously, and Flint switched back to Detroit water. In the end, the year and a half the city used the Flint River for its drinking water cost hundreds of millions of dollars, untold health problems, and the trust of Flint residents in their government.
Will these officials actually be convicted?
During the Thursday press conference, prosecutor Kym Worthy expressed confidence in the charges.
“Just like any other case, we charge cases that we can prove beyond a reasonable doubt. We do not charge cases we cannot prove beyond a reasonable doubt. So we are confident in all the charges we have meted out today.”
On the sidewalk about a block from where Snyder was arraigned, Flint resident Montez Edwards expressed satisfaction mixed with frustration.
“He should have been charged" sooner, Edwards said. "He knew what he did with that water. They cut measures to make sure it was cheaper, but they damaged the city by doing it. They made it hard on people who stay here, and he just go out in the sunset. We want justice [for] what he did.”
Meanwhile, legal experts say it will be a difficult case for prosecutors.
Peter Hammer teaches law at Wayne State University in Detroit. He says, despite possible difficulty getting convictions, it’s important to bring charges.
“Especially in an era where we are living where people are not being held accountable. This could be an important sort of statement about the significance of the rule of law and that not even the highest public official in the state is going to get off scot-free,” said Hammer.
What happens next?
A pre-trial hearing has been set for Snyder and Croft on January 19 at 8:30 a.m. The other defendants will be in court February 18.