Nine Former Michigan Officials, Including Ex-Gov. Rick Snyder, Charged in Flint Water Crisis
Former Gov. Rick Snyder leaves the Genesee County Jail in downtown Flint, Michigan, after his video arraignment on charges related to the Flint water crisis on Jan. 14, 2021. (Cody Scanlan | MLive.com)
It was a moment many in Flint, Michigan, feared would never come.
More than six years after residents learned they had been exposed to lead-contaminated drinking water and a deadly disease outbreak, top leadership in the state and city at the time have been indicted on criminal charges in connection with their role in the crisis.
The sweeping criminal cases announced Thursday include Rick Snyder, the former Republican governor; Snyder’s top aide and his chief of staff; as well as both the state’s top doctor and health official during the crisis, who face the most severe charges: nine counts of involuntary manslaughter each, as well as official misconduct and neglect of duty for “grossly negligent performance.”
“The impact of the Flint water crisis cases and what happened in Flint will span generations and probably well beyond,” said Kym Worthy, one of the special prosecutors appointed to investigate the crisis. “This case has nothing whatsoever to do with partisanship. It has to do with human decency … and finally, finally holding people accountable for their alleged, unspeakable atrocities that occurred in Flint all these years ago. Pure and simple, this case is about justice, truth, accountability, poisoned children, lost lives, shattered families that are still not whole and simply giving a damn about all of humanity.”
Snyder, whose term as governor ended in 2018, had apologized to residents for letting them down. He was charged with two misdemeanor counts of willful neglect of duty and entered a not guilty plea. His lawyer, Brian Lennon, said in a statement that the charges are “wholly without merit and this entire situation is puzzling.”
The former governor’s closest aide, Rich Baird, was charged with four felonies: misconduct in office, perjury, obstruction of justice for attempting to influence the legal proceedings around the crisis, and extortion for “threatening” a state-appointed research team investigating the Flint water crisis — an incident that was first documented by FRONTLINE in Flint’s Deadly Water.
Baird also pleaded not guilty. His attorney, Randall Levine, told the Detroit Free Press that Baird is “innocent of any wrongdoing and is being unfairly prosecuted by the state’s Democratic attorney general.”
Overall, the indictments paint a grim portrait of a cast of officials not only failing to act to protect people’s health but concealing information, lying about the extent of the problems and threatening those trying to get the word out.
Among the others indicted on Thursday were Snyder’s chief of staff, Jarrod Agen, for perjury; Nancy Peeler, a state children’s health official accused of concealing, and later misrepresenting, data on blood-lead levels in Flint’s children; Gerald Ambrose and Darnell Earley, both state-appointed emergency managers in Flint charged with misconduct in office; and Howard Croft, Flint’s director of public works at the time, who faces misdemeanors for failing to protect the safety and quality of the water supply. He was the lone city official indicted in the case.
All nine officials indicted on Thursday entered not guilty pleas.
The two officials at the center of the prosecution, Nick Lyon, the former head of the state health department, and Dr. Eden Wells, the former state chief medical executive, could face 15-year prison sentences for each of nine counts of involuntary manslaughter. Both were also charged with willful neglect of duty. Wells faces an additional felony count of misconduct in office for attempting to prevent the distribution of information about Legionnaires’ disease in Genesee County.
Lyon’s lawyer, Charles Chamberlain, said in a statement that his client was innocent and not responsible for the decision to switch Flint’s water supply, which led to the crisis. “Our hearts go out to Flint citizens who have endured the fallout from that decision,” Chamberlain said. “But it does not help the people of Flint — or our criminal justice system — for the state to charge innocent people with crimes.”
While much of the focus on Flint centered around lead contamination, many of the charges stemmed from a deadly outbreak of Legionnaires’ that occurred during the crisis. Officially, 90 people were diagnosed with Legionnaires’ disease, and 12 died, according to state data. But a FRONTLINE investigation strongly suggests the actual death toll was much higher, as doctors unaware of the threat failed to properly diagnose and treat sickened patients. FRONTLINE also found many victims who succumbed to Legionnaires’ in the months and years following the outbreak, long after the state stopped counting the dead.
The crisis in Flint began in April 2014, when state officials switched Flint’s water supply to the Flint River, billing it as a cost-saving measure for the cash-strapped city. They also failed to require the city to properly treat the water, which corroded the city’s aging pipes, releasing lead into the water and creating a breeding ground for deadly bacteria. Residents complained of foul-smelling, brown water. Then people began to get sick.
As Legionnaires’ cases began ticking upward in 2014, state officials, including Darnell Earley and Jerry Ambrose, exchanged emails speculating that Flint’s new water supply might be to blame. Some worried that word might get out. By the end of 2014, there were 40 confirmed cases of Legionnaires’, and three people had died.
By March 2015, emails show that at least three of Snyder’s aides and two cabinet members had been told about the outbreak, including Lyon.
At a press conference in January 2016, Snyder finally announced the Legionnaires’ outbreak — 18 months after it began. He was joined by Wells and by Lyon, who made a point of noting the outbreak couldn’t be linked to the water switch.
The governor also hastily convened a task force of prominent scientists to investigate the source of the outbreak. The scientists got to work but quickly began clashing with the administration over their findings, when they identified the presence of Legionella, the bacteria that causes the deadly disease, in the water filters of people’s homes.
One of the scientists told FRONTLINE that in late 2016, he received a call from Rich Baird. “He didn’t want to take away funding from the university if I wasn’t able to get on-message,” he said, adding: “I viewed that as just a threat to me and my team about the work we were doing, that we needed to better align our results with what their position was.”
The charges against Snyder come after an earlier effort to hold officials accountable was abandoned in 2019. Todd Flood, a special prosecutor appointed by Snyder’s attorney general, had charged 15 officials in connection with the crisis — including Lyon and Wells, both of whom judges then decided should face trial for involuntary manslaughter charges after months of pretrial hearings.
“I know we worked tirelessly to put a great case together and continue the investigation. I know that, right? And I can say that without equivocation,” Flood told FRONTLINE in the film. “And candidly, look, the facts speak for themselves. We won. … 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.”
After Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer replaced Snyder in 2018, she brought in a new team to pursue the Flint water case. They dropped the existing charges and began the investigation anew, saying the previous effort had been incomplete.
Millions of dollars and more than six years later, Flint residents are still reeling from the fallout of a crisis, the full extent of which may never be known.
Eric Mays, a Flint City councilman who represents the North End, a predominantly African American area of the city that was hit hard by the crisis, said he hoped the charges would bring more answers and accountability. “I’m hoping that people will cut deals and start telling the truth, now that they see the risk of a felony charge,” he said. “In terms of justice for Flint, today I’m going to reserve my opinion and watch the legal process unfold.”
Jacob Carah contributed reporting.