By Jan Worth-Nelson
Declaring “The families of Flint will not be forgotten,” Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette on Friday announced criminal charges against six state employees alleged to be implicated in the Flint water crisis.
“Many things went tragically wrong in Flint,” Schuette said.
“Some people failed to act, others minimized harm done and arrogantly chose to ignore data, some intentionally altered figures and covered up significant health risks. The result? The result the water was poisoned,” he said, “and children have been exposed to extremely high levels of lead which may impede their growth and development for the rest of their lives.”
He continued, “There is an overall theme and repeated pattern. Each of these individuals attempted to bury, to cover up, to downplay or hide information that contradicted their narrative, their story that there was nothing wrong with Flint water. And it was perfectly safe to use. These individuals concealed the truth, and they were criminally wrong to do so.”
Three of the charged are from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ): Liane Shekter-Smith, former chief of drinking water and municipal assistance; Adam Rosenthal, a water quality analyst; and Patrick Cook, a specialist for the community drinking water unit. Shekter-Smith has left the MDEQ; Rosenthal and Cook were still there Friday morning, Schuette said.
Three are from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services: Nancy Peeler, director of the program for maternal, infant and early childhood home visiting; Robert Scott, data manager for the Healthy Homes and Lead Prevention Program; and Corinne Miller, former director of the Bureau of Epidemiology and a state epidemiologist. Miller has left the MDHHS, Schuette said, while Peeler and Scott are still employed in the department.
[UPDATE: Rosenthal, Cook, Peeler and Scott all were suspended by the state on Friday afternoon, hours after Schuette’s press conference, according to this joint statement from the MDEQ and MDHHS:
“Based upon the filing of the charges, the DEQ and MDHHS will each be suspending two current employees without pay until further review of the charges can be conducted. Two additional state employees charged are no longer with DEQ or MDHHS. DEQ and MDHHS will continue to monitor the legal proceedings and evaluate next steps as appropriate.”]
About the charges, Desiree Duell of Flint, a mother, artist and ardent water activist, commented, “It’s a start, but the activists won’t stop fighting until full reparations are given to Flint and all governmental officials are held accountable.”
Schuette said Governor Rick Snyder had been notified of the charges Friday but Schuette declined to comment when asked about potential charges against the state’s top civil servant.
The legal action today brings to nine those charged so far in the crisis. The 18 charges total include felonies in all six cases, all potentially carrying jail times and fines. Others, charged in April, were Mike Prysby and Steven Busch of the MDEQ and Mike Glasgow, a City of Flint water quality supervisor who has since resigned, taken a plea and according to state officials has been cooperating with the investigations.
Schuette said the investigative team members have interviewed 200 people and are “far from done.”
Schuette was flanked by Genesee County Prosecutor David Leyton, Flint Water Investigation Special Prosecutor Todd Floor, and Chief Investigator Andy Arena, a former Detroit FBI chief.
Reading from a prepared statement provided to reporters at a press conference at the UM – Flint, Schuette said, “Some may wish and some may worry that the story of Flint will be slowly absorbed by world events, by the 24-hour news cycle and the short attention span of tweets and posts.
“Nope, that will not happen, not on our watch. That will not happen. The families of Flint will not be forgotten. We will provide the justice they deserve. In Michigan, there is one system of justice. It applies to everybody, equally, no matter who you are. Period. Those who committed crimes will be held accountable.”
“I’ve been involved in thousands of cases,” Flood remarked, “and there hasn’t been a case that has jarred my soul more than this for the lack of caring and the lack of compassion that has affected the citizens of Flint. Every time you turn the page, you think, you can’t make this up. The children of Flint will not go without justice.”
“I don’t get it. I don’t understand the lack of compassion. Mr. Arena and I and our team– we will not stop until every single person in this case who has committed a criminal act will be brought to justice.”
Steve Branch, Mayor Karen Weaver’s chief of staff, sat in on the press conference. “We want whoever’s accountable to be held accountable, and this is just one more step,” he said after the announcement. “So we will just sit back and wait to see what comes next.”
Details on the charges provided by Schuette are as follows:
From the MDEQ:
Shekter-Smith: 1 count, misconduct in office (felony: 5 years and/or $10,000); 1 count willful neglect of duty (misdemeanor, 1 year and/or $1,000).
“Despite receiving notice of citizen complaints about water quality and knowledge of a Legionnaires outbreak and issues with lead levels, Shekter-Smith, in her high ranking position that included supervision of key MDEQ employees, not only allegedly failed to take corrective action or notify public health officials but, in fact took steps to mislead and conceal evidence from health officials in phone calls revealed by the investigation.”
Rosenthal: 1 count misconduct in office (felony: 5 years and/or $10,000); 1 count willful neglect of duty (misdemeanor: 1 year and/or $1,000); 1 county tempering with evidence (felony: 4 years and/or $5,000).
“…Rosenthal was warned by Flint Water Treatment Plant officials that they were not ready for operations and was later warned by the EA that high levels of lead is usually due to particulate lead, signaling a corrosion problem. Charges allege that in 2015, Rosenthal willfully participated int he manipulation of lead testing restuls and falsely reported that the 90th percentile of the results for lead water testing was below the federal action level. Eventually, a July 28, 2015 report was altered to exclude some high lead tests and Rosenthal forwarded the altered report on. Previously charged MDEQ employees Busch and Prysby were also allegedly involved.”
Cook: 1 count wilful neglect of duty (misdemeanor: 1 year and/or $1,000); 1 count misconduct in office (felony: 5 years and/or $10,000); 1 count conspiracy (felony: 5 years and/or $10,000).
“Cook, who is the current MDEQ official responsible for complacence with lead and copper monitoring, signed a permit in 2014 that was the last approval necessary for the use of the Flint Water Treatment Plant. Cook subsequently was aware of problems with the water in Flint but allegedly took no corrective action in his duty to ensure the provision of clean, safe drinking water in Flint. Cook allegedly mislead the EPA regarding the necessity of using corrosion control in Flint after the switch when he allegedly forwarded information he knew to be false to the EPA in response to its inquiries.
From the MDHHS:
Peeler: 1 count, misconduct in office (felony: 5 years and/or $10,000); 1 count conspiracy (felony, 5 years and/or $10,000); 1 count, willful neglect of duty (misdemeanor, 1 year and/or$1,000).
Scott: 1 count, misconduct in office (felony, 5 years and/or $10,000); 1 county, conspiracy (felony, 5 years and/or $10,000); 1 count, willful neglect of duty (misdemeanor, 1 year and/or $1,000).
Miller: 1 count, misconduct in office (felony: 5 years and/or $10,000); 1 count conspiracy (felony, 5 years and/or $10,000); 1 count willful neglect of duty (misdemeanor, 1 year and/or $1,000).
“..Peeler…requested an internal report on blood lead level data in Flint children. That report, created on July 28, 2015 using sound scientific principles, showed a significant spike –higher than usual — in blood lead tests for Flint children for the summer of 2014. However, the charges allege that the report was buried, never forwarded by Peeler or others to appropriate health officials.
“Peller then joined with a different MDHHS employee, Robert Scott, the data manager for the Healthy Homes and Lead Prevention program, and created a second report, issued two days after the initial report. The second report falsely indicated no statistically significant rise in blood lead levels of children in the summer of 2014.
“Meanwhile, Corinne Miller, then director of the Bureau of Epidemiology and State Epidemiologist, received the first report but instructed others not to take action, rebuffing other employees who asked about next steps of action. The charges allege that Miller later instructed another MDHHS employee to delete emails concerning the original blood lead data report from July 28, 2015.
“The investigation also revealed that on the day the first blood lead level report was created, July 28, 2015, there was communication between MDEQ defendant Liane Shekter-Smith and MDHHS. This was the same time that MDEQ defendants allegedly were manipulating lead water results to conceal unsafe lead levels. Despite knowledge to the contrary, the investigation showed that Shekter-Smith allegedly told MDHHS that there were no lead issues with Flint’s drinking water.”
EVM editor Jan Worth-Nelson can be reached at email@example.com.