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Former Michigan governor charged for mishandling Flint water crisis

Prosecutors in Michigan announced 41 criminal charges against nine former state and city officials Thursday in the Flint water crisis, including Michigan's former governor. Sandra Jones, executive director of R. L. Jones Community Outreach Center at the Greater Holy Temple Church of God in Christ, joins John Yang to discuss the impact the public health failure continues to have on the community.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Let's get the details now on the Flint, Michigan story, where, today, state prosecutors filed charges against a number of high-ranking government officials.

    John Yang has our report.

  • John Yang:

    It's one of the worst public health failures in recent history, the contamination of Flint, Michigan's drinking water, blamed for at least a dozen deaths and health problems for countless others.

    Today, nearly seven years after the Flint water crisis first emerged, prosecutors announced 41 criminal charges against nine former state and city officials. Michigan Solicitor General Fadwa Hammoud:

  • Solicitor General Fadwa Hammoud:

    We may never know all the names of those who had their lives and livelihoods destroyed by this man made crisis. And although the criminal justice system alone cannot remedy all the suffering that every person endured, we took our part seriously, and we hope others will do the same to ensure that this never ever, ever happens again.

  • John Yang:

    Among those charged:, former Governor Rick Snyder. He pleaded not guilty this morning to two misdemeanor charges of willful neglect of duty. Each count carries up to a year in prison and a $1,000 fine. His attorney called the charges wholly without merit.

    Two others, including former state Health Director Nick Lyon, were each charged with nine counts each of involuntary manslaughter, felonies punishable by up to 15 years in prison. Both pleaded not guilty to all counts.

    The indictments say they failed to protect the public health after state-appointed officials switched the city's water supply in 2014 from Lake Huron to the Flint River in a cost-cutting move. The more corrosive river water damaged the city's aging pipes, causing lead to leach into the drinking water.

    Ariana Hawk's son suffered from blisters and skin rashes. When we visited her home in 2019, she told us the lingering effects included a loss of trust.

    Are you angry?

  • Ariana Hawk:

    Oh, yes. Of course I'm angry. I'm more upset and hurt than anger. It's hurting because these are people who we trust every day. These are the people who said that this was OK.

  • John Yang:

    Tests today show Flint's water is safe to drink, but work to replace the city's damaged pipes is still incomplete.

    Flint activist Melissa Mays:

  • Melissa Mays:

    It seems like we have been forgotten. And nobody's sitting in jail. If I poisoned you, I would be in jail.

    We're coming up on seven years of being in a prison where we can't even be safe in our own homes. And then, of course, under COVID, we have all been locked indoors, and we're stuck using this water.

  • John Yang:

    Compounding a situation that still dominates life in this majority-Black city.

    In November, the Michigan attorney general announced a $600 million fund for families in Flint to settle civil lawsuits from the water crisis. Approval of that plan is pending from a federal judge.

    Sandra Jones is the executive director of the R.L. Jones Community Outreach Center in Flint. It's based at the Greater Holy Temple Church of God in Christ, where her husband is a pastor.

    Sandra, what was your reaction when you heard the news today about the criminal charges against these former officials, including the former governor?

  • Sandra Jones:

    Long time overdue. And, this time, I hope and pray that it sticks.

  • John Yang:

    Two of the people, including the former health director for the state of Michigan, were charged with involuntary manslaughter, nine counts each.

  • Sandra Jones:

    It is what it is.

    And, I mean, so many people were actually affected. These were lives. We're not talking about property. We're talking about human life. And so I applaud her for what it is that she's doing. She has my support.

  • John Yang:

    I have to ask you.

    There are some lawyers who know more about this than I do who say that it may be tough to get convictions in some of these cases, particularly against the former Governor Rick Snyder, because it's been so long. It's been seven years since the — his action or inaction that he's charged for.

    Have you thought about what it might feel like, how you might feel if the former governor and if some of these other officials are acquitted in court? Or do you think it's enough that they have got to stand up and face these charges in court?

  • Sandra Jones:

    No, it isn't enough that they have to face the charges in court. That's just not enough.

    How could that be enough, when you look at, right now, today, children that are 5 and 6 years old that have cognitive skill problems, children whose parents have not been able to potty train them at the age of 3? How is it enough when you have adults who had lesions all over their bodies, and now they have different kinds of allergies that they have got to live with the rest of their lives?

    And we really don't know what the long-term effects that lead actually has, because, after 28 days, and you have congested it, some of us don't even actually know if it's affected us or not.

    So, no, I really don't have — I don't feel sorry for them. I just hope that she has enough information to be able to bring these charges and to have these charges to stick.

  • John Yang:

    So, you're not going to be satisfied until they're — you get some convictions out of this?

  • Sandra Jones:

    Some form of penalty needs to be made.

    And I'm not talking about monetary. I think that, when you know something that will create a physical condition in a human body, and you have the ability to do something about that, where you put money above human life, oh, yes, you need to pay for that.

    I can't tell you what the penalty should be, because I'm not proficient in that area. I can only tell you, as a human being who has worked in the cold, in the heat, in the snow, in the rain, in all types of weather, at 73 years old — when I started this, I was in my 60s, and I'm 73.

    And today was our water and food distribution day. When you have residents still lined up for over a mile-and-a-half just to get four or five cases of water, because either they have been affected by the water or they don't trust the water, someone needs to take accountability.

    Michigan has had other cities since our water crisis to have been affected one way or the other, but their water has been affected. Guess what? Those cities have been cleaned up, cleared up, and everybody's on their way. We're the only ones still limping.

  • John Yang:

    You talk about the children, the long-term effects. Your church still giving out water and food every week.

    Can you envision a day when this is just a unpleasant incident in the history of Flint, rather than a here-and-now problem?

  • Sandra Jones:

    No, I cannot envision that day.

    And I'm going to share with you why. Because, when these people come through the line, they come in all kind of conditions. They start lining up at our church at 4:30 a.m. in the morning. Until I see all of the pipes in this city changed out, until I see the residents and our lines start getting shorter and shorter and shorter, then maybe I can look up and feel that things are going to get better.

    But I don't see it today.

  • John Yang:

    Sandra Jones from the Greater Holy Temple Church of God in Christ in Flint, Michigan, talking about the ongoing problems there.

    Sandra, you thank you very much.

  • Sandra Jones:

    And thank you very much for checking with us today and still caring about the problems that we're facing in Flint, Michigan.

    Much appreciated.

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