Top State Health Official to Stand Trial for Flint Water Crisis Role
Nick Lyon, director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, in court on Aug. 20, 2018. (Abby Ellis)
In a packed courtroom in downtown Flint, a Michigan judge ruled today the top state health official during the city’s 2014 water crisis must stand trial on three felony charges, including involuntary manslaughter, for his role in responding to a deadly disease outbreak during that time.
Nick Lyon, the director of Michigan’s Department of Health and Human Services, is the first of more than a dozen state and local officials to be sent to trial as part of a sprawling criminal investigation opened in January 2016 by the state attorney general.
The charges come more than four years after Flint switched its drinking water from Detroit to the Flint River in April 2014, a move that led to the contamination of the water supply and ultimately a federal state of emergency.
District Court Judge David Goggins said in his Aug. 20 decision that Lyon had both the “legal duty” and the “capacity” to alert the public to the risks of a deadly outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease that coincided with the 18-month period in which Flint used the river water. He said Lyon “either acted wilfully and neglectfully, or refused to perform those duties.” The judge also said that he found Lyon’s behavior of withholding information during the outbreak “corrupt.”
“We do find, based upon all of the evidence in its totality, find the prosecution has established the following crimes have been committed and probable cause exists to believe that Nicholas Lyon committed these offenses,” Goggins said. Some in the crowd could be heard exclaiming “yes, yes” as he read his hours–long ruling.
Monday’s decision concludes an 11-month long preliminary hearing process. Prosecutors were tasked with proving there was sufficient evidence to bring the felony charges — two for involuntary manslaughter and one for misconduct in office — against Lyon. The manslaughter charges are based on two men who died after contracting Legionnaires’ disease: Robert Skidmore and John Snyder. “If that information had been disseminated, that information would have likely prevented those two deaths” according to the legal standards of the preliminary exam, Goggins said.
As a result of Monday’s ruling, the case against Lyon will now be bound over to circuit court for trial. The judge did not weigh in on a fourth count, a misdemeanor charge of willful neglect of duty in office, but said it would also move forward to circuit court.
Lyon’s legal team said it plans to file a motion to invalidate Goggins’ decision, arguing that the judge ignored all the testimony disputing the prosecution’s case. They maintain that there is no merit to the charges.
“We had 20–plus pages of legal reasons why these charges can’t go forward and [the judge] didn’t say a word about any of that on the record,” said defense attorney John Bursch, who was hired by the state to represent the public health director. “That’s a serious problem on appeal.”
Legionnaires’ disease is a severe form of pneumonia caused by waterborne bacteria known as legionella. While much of the national attention on Flint has centered on high lead levels, the city also experienced an unusual spike of Legionnaires’ cases shortly after Flint began using Flint River water. Officially, 90 people were sickened and 12 died from exposure to waterborne legionella bacteria during that time. But a FRONTLINE investigation found that the death toll could be much higher.
The cause of the legionella outbreak remains contested. Several studies have linked the outbreak to the Flint River, while the state health department has pinpointed a local hospital, McLaren Flint, as the source.
The criminal proceedings are focused on what public officials knew about the legionella outbreak when, and how they acted. The rise in infections was first recorded in the state’s disease surveillance systems as early as June 2014. County officials issued guidance on handling the increase in Legionnaires’ cases to local hospitals in February 2015 at the suggestion of the state, according to an email provided to FRONTLINE by the state health department. The public was not notified until January 2016. State health officials have said that they were investigating the outbreak, but didn’t have enough evidence to warn the public sooner.
Lyon is one of two members of Governor Richard Snyder’s cabinet whom prosecutors have indicted. After the ruling, Snyder issued a statement saying Lyon has his “full faith and confidence, and will remain on duty at [the state health department] unless convicted of a crime after a full trial by a jury of his peers.”
He added: “Even during an unprecedented, nearly yearlong preliminary exam, Director Lyon has remained focused on his job and Flint’s full recovery.”
Similar hearings for two other state health officials and four officials with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality are currently underway. A judge has yet to determine whether or not the case against the state’s chief medical executive, Eden Wells, will go to trial. Wells is facing charges of involuntary manslaughter, misconduct in office, obstruction of justice and lying to a peace officer in connection with the Flint water crisis and the Legionnaires’ disease outbreak.
This fall, hearings are expected to begin for two state-appointed officials who were running the city of Flint during the crisis. So far, four individuals have taken plea deals.
Flint resident Ariana Hawk was in the courtroom for the hearing. She said it has been “four long years” since the water crisis began, but that she was grateful for the judge’s decision to send Lyon’s case to trial.
“I don’t even look at it as long no more, when you get results like ‘we’re binding it over,’” the 28-year-old mother said. “I’m grateful because I thought, like everybody else, that he was going to be walking free and that we were going to have no justice.”
—Jacob Carah and Abby Ellis contributed reporting.