Charges Expected for Former Gov. Snyder, Top Officials for Flint Water Crisis

The Flint River, summer of 2018.

The Flint River, summer of 2018. (Abby Ellis)

January 12, 2021

Former Michigan Governor Rick Snyder and some of his top health officials and aides are expecting criminal charges for their roles in the Flint water crisis, according to two lawyers involved in the case.

The charges could be filed in the next “24 to 48 hours,” and involve at least nine former officials, including the former governor, one of his top aides, Rich Baird; and Nick Lyon, the former top state health official, the lawyers told FRONTLINE on Tuesday.

The expected indictments come more than six years after residents in Flint, Michigan learned that their drinking water had been contaminated with high levels of lead — and that officials had failed to alert the public to a deadly outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease that occurred at the same time.

Courtney Covington Watkins, a spokeswoman for the special prosecutor appointed by the Michigan attorney general declined to comment on the charges, but told FRONTLINE that the team was “on quite the pursuit of justice for people in Flint.”

The Associated Press quoted Snyder’s attorney, Brian Lennon, saying state prosecutors hadn’t shared information about charges, but a criminal prosecution would be “outrageous.” “Rather than following the evidence to find the truth, the Office of Special Counsel appears to be targeting former Gov. Snyder in a political escapade,” Lennon said.

An attorney for Baird declined to comment. In FRONTLINE’s film investigating the Legionnaires’ outbreak, Flint’s Deadly Water, a scientist tasked with investigating the outbreak recalled an exchange with the aide then:

An attorney for Lyon declined to comment. In the past, Lyon has denied any wrongdoing.

In the clip below, scientists tasked with investigating the outbreak recalled an exchange with the health official at the time:

This is the second time prosecutors have sought to hold officials accountable. In January 2016, then Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette appointed a special prosecutor, Todd Flood, to investigate how the water crisis occurred. Flood charged more than a dozen state and city officials associated with the Legionnaires’ disease outbreak — including Lyon, and the state’s top doctor Eden Wells with involuntary manslaughter, alleging that their failure to act led to Legionnaires’ deaths.

After months of weighing the evidence, two district court judges ruled that Lyon and Wells should face jury trials. “We won,” Flood said in an interview with FRONTLINE for the film. “We did things the old-fashioned way of moving from the bottom and going up in the investigation. And the investigation for us was far from over.”

In 2018, Snyder’s term in office ended, and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer was elected. She appointed a new attorney general who ousted Flood and most of his team and appointed new prosecutors, who dropped all the charges against the officials, raising questions and concerns about accountability in Flint.

In 2019 the new prosecutor, Fadwa Hammoud, told FRONTLINE in the film that the initial investigation had been fundamentally flawed and had failed to collect all available evidence. Hammoud promised a more robust investigation, and the possibility of bringing charges anew.

“We are interested in justice, no matter how hard that is,” she said then. “We did not choose the easy route, but we chose the route that the people of Flint deserve.”

Today, Flint City Councilman Eric Mays, who represents some of the residents who were hardest hit by the water crisis, was guarded about the news. “Although this is a good day to hear about the news that there will be charges, I’m not holding my breath,” he said, “as I want to see what the prosecution does and what kind of job they do.”

— Abby Ellis contributed reporting.

Sarah Childress

Sarah Childress, Former Series Senior Editor, FRONTLINE

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