June 15, 2017

Michigan charges former health department head with involuntary manslaughter over Flint crisis

Daily Briefing

    Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette on Wednesday charged the director of the state health department and four former local and state officials with involuntary manslaughter over a Legionnaires' disease outbreak linked to the Flint water crisis.

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    The charges are the latest to be filed in a 17-month-old criminal investigation being conducted into the Flint water crisis. Schuette said his office has filed a total of 51 charges against 15 current or former state officials, and said more charges still could be filed.

    Background on Flint

    The city of Flint switched water sources from the Detroit Water and Sewer Department to the Flint River from April 2014 to October 2015. Officials involved in the switch failed to immediately treat the water and to require the use of common chemicals to prevent pipe corrosion. As a result, lead seeped into the city's water supply from the aging service lines running through the city, and Flint residents began reporting rashes and other illnesses.

    Immediately following the switch, an outbreak of Legionnaires' disease—a type of pneumonia—spread across the city in Genesee County, and several Flint residents died from the disease.

    Michigan AG charges state, city officials with manslaughter over Legionnaires' disease outbreak

    Schuette on Wednesday charged Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon with involuntary manslaughter and misconduct in office for allegedly withholding information from the public on the Legionnaires' disease outbreak. Under those charges, Lyon if convicted could face up to 20 years in prison.

    Schuette alleged Lyon deliberately failed to alert the public when officials had notified him that Genesee County faced an epidemic of Legionnaires' disease, which the AG's office argued resulted in the death Robert Skidmore in December 2015. In addition, Schuette contends Lyon violated his duty to protect the public health of Flint residents.

    The four former state officials charged with involuntary manslaughter for failing to notify the public of the outbreak include:

    • Stephen Busch, the former District 8 water supervisor of Michigan Department of Environmental Quality;
    • Liane Shekter-Smith, the former chief of the Office of Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance at the Department of Environmental Quality;
    • Howard Croft,  the former director of public works for Flint; and
    • Darnell Earley, the former emergency manager for Flint.

    In addition, Schuette charged Eden Wells, chief medical executive of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, with obstruction of justice and lying to an investigator about the Legionnaires' disease outbreak, for which she could face up to seven years in prison if convicted.

    What you need to know about the Flint water crisis

    Reaction

    Chip Chamberlain, a lawyer representing Lyon, called the charges against the director "baseless," saying that "the true facts simply do not support the prosecution’s claims."

    Jerold Lax, a lawyer representing Wells, said she "vehemently denies the charges and the charges will be vigorously defended."

    Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) in a statement defended Lyon and Wells, saying he has confidence in both individuals and that they will remain at the state's health department.

    Some legal experts said it might be difficult for prosecutors to demonstrate a direct link between Flint's corroding water pipes and the Legionnaires' disease outbreak, although some scientists have suggested that the corrosion could have caused the disease to spread.

    Schuette at a press conference Wednesday said, "Lyon failed in his responsibilities to protect the health and safety of the citizens of Flint." He added, "There are those who assumed this would be swept under the rug. That arrogance that people would want to sweep this away, that there were nameless, faceless bureaucrats that caused this, is outrageous"  (Maher, Wall Street Journal, 6/14; Atkinson/Davey, New York Times, 6/14; Pluta, "Around the World," NPR, 6/15).

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